Maddux helps Team USA pitchers keep it simple
MIAMI -- The beauty of the World Baseball Classic is that it's the only international baseball tournament to ever include Major League players. The play is emotional, intense and at times beautiful.
And somehow Team USA even has been able to work around the constraints of the big league teams to move one win away from the semifinals on Sunday and Monday at AT&T Park. Only a win at Marlins Park over the Dominican Republic on Thursday night is standing in the way.
For the position players it has been simple for manager Joe Torre to move guys in and out of the lineup, getting them at-bats and playing time. The pitching took a lot more planning, a job that was undertaken by Greg Maddux, the U.S. pitching coach, who disclosed on Wednesday that the starting pitching for the first two rounds of the tournament has been mapped out for weeks.
"It's been really simple," Maddux said. "I mean, you just had to figure out which guys you wanted to pitch what day and then their pitching coaches really had to do all the work. All the pitching coaches were great about that. They were on board and I can't thank them enough. All of our starters were set up to pitch two weeks before Spring Training started. All the pitching coaches that did that were kind of on our team as well. You know what I mean?"
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Torre knew he needed someone in the short term that an All-Star quality pitching staff would respond well to. He turned to Maddux, a 355-game winner and a certain Hall of Famer next year when his name appears on the ballot for the first time.
"When I called Greg, at first he thought I had called the wrong Maddux," Torre said weeks ago in jest, referring to his older brother Mike Maddux, the highly-regarded Rangers pitching coach.
Torre managed in the big leagues for 29 years, retiring in 2010, and Maddux pitched 23 seasons for four teams from 1986-2008. Maddux only pitched for Torre once. That was for seven starts in the final days of his career at the end of the 2008 season when Torre managed the Dodgers.
Maddux always annoyed Torre while pitching against him in the World Series. Maddux was with the Braves in the 1990s when Torre managed the Yankees to four World Series titles in five years. He was 1-1 with a 1.72 ERA in the 1996 World Series, and lost his one start in the '99 Fall Classic. The Yankees beat Atlanta both times.
"I always admired what he did," Torre said. "He used to frustrate me watching it, because it was against my teams, but I always just admired how businesslike he was and grounded he was. When I got him over with the Dodgers, he was every bit of what you hoped he would be."
When Maddux quickly realized Torre had called the right Maddux, he readily accepted the role on Team USA. Whether it leads to anything else is up to conjecture.
"I'm certainly having a great time doing this, and I'm learning a lot," said Maddux, who at 46 is a consultant in the Rangers organization. "I enjoy being around the players. The pitchers on the staff have been outstanding. Who knows what's going to happen down the road, but right now I'm having the time of my life. I enjoy being around these guys, and I like learning from the other coaches, as well, on the staff. I'm glad I'm here, and I'm glad Joe picked me."
Even though it doesn't translate in his interviews, Maddux has always had one the zanier senses of humor in the game. He's well known for his clubhouse pranks and won't talk about them publicly, saying on Wednesday, "what happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse."
But his impact on fellow pitchers is undeniable. Jake Peavy has always said that it's no coincidence he had his best big league season in 2007 with the Padres, winning the National League Cy Young Award and the league's pitching Triple Crown when Maddux was his teammate.
Before Gio Gonzalez left Nationals camp for Team USA, manager Davey Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty told him to seek out Maddux for pointers. After pitching five scoreless innings on Tuesday night in a 7-1 win over Puerto Rico, Gonzalez credited Maddux with putting him in the right frame of mind to succeed on the mound in front of a raucous crowd.
"He just broke it down to something simple: think of fielding a routine ground ball or just fishing or something," Gonzalez said. "Just take your mind off of it. I understood it immediately. He was able to point out, make that small adjustment. Just tune it out. Just think of something real simple and try to pound the strike zone."
Maddux and McCatty also worked out the routine, which had Gonzalez make his fourth start of the spring for Team USA. As is his norm, though, Maddux downplayed the compliment.
"Well, [Gonzalez] did it. He went out there and he threw every pitch," Maddux said. "He's the reason that he didn't give up a run. To his credit, he located his fastball very well. I thought he even threw some good changeups. I heard a lot about his curveballs, but I thought his changeup was pretty good last night, as well."
Maddux is a wealth of information. With one more victory than Roger Clemens, Maddux has the most wins of any pitcher who played in his era. But unlike Clemens, he didn't dominate with a fastball. The Maddux fastball didn't look like it could crack a pane of glass. For most of his career, he was an artist, painting corners, disrupting hitting patterns, working the ball in and out.
Asked what he's been telling the U.S. hurlers, Maddux said:
"I just passed on the experiences I've had. The biggest thing is you just pitch. You forget about all the stuff going on outside of pitching. I think when guys just worry about what to throw and how to throw it, they seem to start doing better. You just get rid of all the eyewash that goes around outside of pitching and just worry about pitching."
One thing is certain: the man knew how to pitch. Torre, a catcher by trade, figured that the Team USA staff would listen.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.