You may not remember the date, the opponent or even the game itself, because it wasn’t a no-hitter or perfect game. But 20 years ago on this very day — July 22, 1997 — Greg Maddux turned in one of the most masterful and oddly spectacular pitching performances you’ll ever see.
And it was perfectly Maddux in every way.
He threw a complete game against the Chicago Cubs using just 76 pitches. Yes, just 76. Of those, only 13 were balls. He had six strikeouts. Not only did Maddux not walk anyone, he didn’t get into a single three-ball count all day. He only got two balls against a hitter twice — once in the second inning against Sammy Sosa and in the seventh against Mark Grace.
You might think Maddux could have written a textbook in pitching efficiency that day, but actually, the game was probably moving too quick. The Braves beat the Cubs 4-1 in two hours and seven minutes.
Eddie Perez, who was Maddux’s personal catcher at the time and now the Braves’ first-base coach, remembers the game well.
“We didn’t pay attention to pitch count back then,” Perez said. “Now, it’s right there in every ballpark. We didn’t have that, especially not in Chicago.
“The eighth or ninth inning, that’s when I was like ‘Oh my God, we’re almost done.’” Perez said. “We walked into the clubhouse and someone said ‘Wow, he only threw 76 pitches.’ Really? I know it was somewhere in that area, but not that low.
“After the game we could hear Leo Mazzone, he was the pitching coach at the time, yelling ‘That wasn’t 76, that was 74.’ ”
History has it down as 76, Mazzone’s objections be damned. The TV broadcast at the time said 78 pitches. They clearly didn’t track pitches like we do today. Nonetheless, only six times in baseball history has a complete game been thrown with fewer pitches than Maddux’s 76. Jose Bautista — no, not that one — threw a 70-pitch complete game shutout in 1988. More recently, Aaron Cook threw a 74-pitch complete game for the Rockies in 2007 and Carlos Silva also went 74 pitches for the Twins in 2005.
But Maddux has a rep for these things. He was known for working quick, throwing strikes and not getting over 100 pitches too often. There’s even a stat named after him — The Maddux — for when a pitcher throws a shutout with fewer than 100 pitches. Maddux did that 13 times during his career.
When we asked Perez, “how the heck did Maddux throw a complete game with 76 pitches?” He had a couple ideas. First, it was the first game of a doubleheader. Neither team was being too patient.
“People knew he threw a lot of strikes,” Perez said. “They’re going up there swinging the bat. They’re not going take a pitch because they know it’s going to be a strike.
“We knew we had another game and wanted to play quick.
“If he pitched in this era right now,” Perez said. “It would be different, because he’d have to wait for TV. He only threw fives pitches to warm up between innings. Now he’d have to wait.”
So get this: Maddux threw seven pitches in the first inning and then seven in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings. He really labored in the fourth inning — that was when he surrendered the one run — and threw 12 pitches. By contrast, Jake Arrieta, who wasn’t too bad for the Cubs on Friday, threw 97 pitches through six innings. He gave up five hits and two runs. Back in 1997, Maddux also gave up five hits.
One of those hits is the other reason Perez remembers this game so well. It came off the bat of Cubs pitcher Geremi Gonzalez, just 22 at the time, who threw seven innings that day. Perez and Gonzalez were friends.
“I remember, he was joking around,” Perez said. “He told me, he was going to get a hit. He was very cocky. And he did. He was laughing on first base.”
Gonzalez died in 2008 after being struck by lightning in Venezuela. He was 33 and two years removed from pitching in the big leagues. But getting a hit off Maddux was something Gonzalez was always proud of.
“He would always tell everybody about this game,” Perez said. “He would always say ‘I got a hit against Maddux.’ ”
The other four guys to get hits that day off Maddux: Third baseman Tyler Houston, shortstop Shawon Dunston, second baseman Ryne Sandberg and first baseman Mark Grace.
Grace and Sandberg make for a fun comparison. Grace saw more pitches from Maddux than anybody — 15. That accounted for 19 percent of the pitches that Maddux threw. Sandberg? He saw five pitches total in three at-bats.
“He’s a brilliant, brilliant pitcher,” Grace told the Associated Press that night. “If my life depended on one game, I’d want him to throw it.”
Twenty years ago on this date, Greg Maddux would have saved some lives.
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