At age 40, Maddux pitches with a high level of intensity

CHICAGO – The Chicago Cubs have found themselves a new phenom.

Make that an old phenom.

Three weeks removed from his 40th birthday, Greg Maddux is pitching like the ace of old. He’s 5-0 for the first time in his illustrious career, and his miserly 1.35 ERA is second best in the majors.

Better yet, he’s carrying a Chicago team that is above .500 despite injuries to starters Kerry Wood and Mark Prior and a rough start by Carlos Zambrano.

“Without his 5-0, we wouldn’t be close to where we are,” Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. “He’s not gloating or reveling over what he’s done, he just continues to do what he’s doing.”

The right-hander has been a model of quiet consistency his entire career. More crafty than overpowering, he’s more likely to trip hitters up with darting pitches that paint the corners than a 98 mph fastball. He studies hitters with the intensity of a research scientist, and uses that knowledge to pick apart their weaknesses.

In 20-plus seasons, he’s won 323 games, struck out 3,076 and has a career ERA of 3.00. He won four straight Cy Young awards, and went 17 years without a losing record.

“He just has a passion for the game,” said Henry Blanco, who was Maddux’s personal catcher for two years in Atlanta and now is in his second season with the Cubs.

“He knows hitters as well as anybody else, and I think that’s what makes him so good,” Blanco said. “He knows what it takes to go out there and win a ballgame. He’s going to give you 100 percent every time he’s on the mound.”

Last year, though, he wasn’t very Maddux-like. His 13-15 record and 4.24 ERA were his worst since 1987, his first full season in the majors. And he looked, well, like a guy easing toward middle age.

Though he’s never been a workout fiend like Roger Clemens, Maddux always has been fit. But he was starting to look a little flabby, and he didn’t seem to have the same unshakable command.

“There’s good years and there’s bad years,” Baker said. “There’s great years and there’s good years. There’s fair years and poor years. … He only had 15 (great years) in a row. Maybe it was time.”

Maddux is highly competitive, and mediocrity didn’t sit well with him.

Though he refuses to give details, he worked with a personal trainer in the offseason. According to the Chicago Tribune, Maddux did three or four 90-minute workouts a week with noted physical therapist Keith Kleven that focused on his core, leg strength and flexibility.

Kleven told the Tribune that before Maddux left for spring training he had tripled the strength in his lower body, doubled it in his upper body and cut his body fat by 3.5 points to 15.3 percent.

“I think Greg had come to the conclusion that he needed to do more than he usually did in the winter to keep pitching at a high level,” Kleven told the Tribune. “So he really committed to it.”

It showed. In his first four starts, Maddux gave up three earned runs and only 15 hits. He had an ERA of 0.99.

He wasn’t quite as sharp in his last start, allowing two earned runs and eight hits in six innings last Friday against the Milwaukee Brewers. He got in two bases-loaded jams, escaping one unscathed but allowing a pair of runs in the other.

Maddux did shut Prince Fielder down, striking him out twice. And he kept Milwaukee in check enough to give the Cubs a 6-2 victory.

“I don’t see anything different with him now than in his heyday when he was at his best,” said Milwaukee manager Ned Yost, who coached in Atlanta when Maddux was with the Braves.

Added Geoff Jenkins, “He’s pitching as good as he ever has.”

Not to hear Maddux tell it.

Though he’s a prankster and one of the most well-liked people in the clubhouse, Maddux loathes talking about himself. Ask him about his resurgence this year, and he’ll either credit his teammates or play it down.

Sometimes, like after Friday’s start, he’ll do both.

“Runs make you look real good, know what I mean? The guys have scored and they’ve played good defense,” he said. “Maybe sometimes the pitcher gets a little too much credit for that. It’s pitching and doing what you do to make pitches.

“The outcome of the game is something that, as a starting pitcher, is very hard to control,” he added. “So you just worry about making pitches, leave it at that and move on.”

Maddux doesn’t like other people talking about him, either. When closer Ryan Dempster started praising Maddux during a televised pre-game interview last week, Maddux grimaced and walked away from the TV he’d been watching.

Those closest to him have taken an oath of silence that would make Tony Soprano proud. Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild only answers general questions about him. Kleven now refuses to comment about working with him.

“You guys are asking me stuff that he’s not even answering,” Baker said, laughing.

But Maddux is happy to share his secrets with his teammates. When outfielder Matt Murton was riding the bench last year, he used the time to pick Maddux’s brain about defense, hitting strategies and just being a professional.

This year, Maddux is often seen talking with rookie Sean Marshall – who is putting the counsel to good use with a 2-0 record and a 3.45 ERA.

“There’s pitching coaches that can straighten you out and tell you some things, but most pitching coaches haven’t pitched 20 years in the major leagues,” Marshall said. “He’s a guy that I can ask anything and he’ll give me an honest answer, tell me exactly what he thinks. He’s an awesome resource to have.”

And if he keeps pitching this way, the Cubs might have access to that resource for a few more years. Maddux is signed through the end of this year, but there’s already rumblings about an extension.

“I think he’s showing everybody he still can do it. Everybody knows his age, but I don’t think it means anything,” Blanco said. “All I can tell you is, he’s still smart. He’s as smart as when he was 20, and that’s what it takes. He doesn’t throw hard, he doesn’t overpower hitters, he just does what he’s capable of doing.”