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Monday, April 24, 2006

Greg Maddux Is 4-0 This Year; Cubs Beat Cards 7-3

Last year it seemed Greg Maddux was not his former self. That's changed this year. He's helping the Cubs make up for the loss of Mark Prior.

Splendid Maddux improves to 4-0
Lowers ERA to NL-leading 0.99; Jones, Ramirez go deep
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com

ST. LOUIS -- So far, 40 is pretty special for Greg Maddux.

The veteran right-hander improved to 4-0, winning his 322nd career game, and lowered his ERA to a National League-leading 0.99 as the Chicago Cubs beat the St. Louis Cardinals, 7-3, on Sunday to avoid a sweep.

"Anytime you can come to St. Louis and get a win, it's a good day," Maddux said.

Aramis Ramirez hit a two-run homer, Jacque Jones added a solo shot and Todd Walker drove in three runs to back Maddux (4-0), who gave most of the bullpen a much-needed day off and stopped a two-game losing streak.

"He's been awesome all year, and today we really needed a stopper," Walker said.

"He gave us the innings, he gave us the quality, he gave us a hit to start a rally, gave us baserunning -- he gave us anything you could get from a position player and a pitcher," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "We needed it badly."

This is the first time in his career that Maddux has won each of his first four starts. Not bad for a pitcher who turned 40 on April 14. He opened the 2000 season 4-0 with Atlanta, but achieved that record after six starts. He downplayed the feat.

"We've been scoring a lot of runs, too, so that helps," Maddux said. "Guys swung the bats well. Ramy got the big hit and put us ahead. Defense and runs goes a long way."

On Sunday, the Cubs right-hander struck out four and gave up one walk and five hits -- including three by Scott Rolen -- over seven scoreless innings. The four-time Cy Young winner appears to be turning back the clock. His lowest ERA in a single season was 1.56 in 1994 with Atlanta. Is he a better pitcher now?

"I wish I could explain it," Maddux said of tapping into the fountain of youth. "Personally, I"m just getting ready to pitch like I always have and catching a lot of breaks."

Like having one of Rolen's doubles hit the top of the center-field fence and not go over.

"Sometimes you catch a lot of breaks in this game, and right now I think I am," Maddux said.

"It was vintage Maddux," catcher Michael Barrett said. "He's been able to locate the ball really well early in the count. He's getting the ball down and away. Late in the count, he's keeping guys off balance by mixing his pitches. You can't say much more than vintage Maddux. He did today what he's been doing the last couple starts -- not trying to do too much."

Cardinals starter Jason Marquis (3-1) has seen Maddux's magic act before. The two were teammates in Atlanta, and this is the fourth time they've gone head-to-head.

"The guy is a special player," Marquis said. "He knows what he's doing out there. He's been baffling hitters for a long time, so it's not surprising to see what he's doing."

The good news is the Cubs now know they can win without Derrek Lee.

"We need all the help we can get since we lost our big guy," Walker said. "It was nice to get a win without Derrek. You start believing you can do it."

They still miss Lee, who will see his teammates Monday at Wrigley Field for the first time since he was hurt last week.

"It's tough losing D-Lee because he's such a good person, let alone a good player," Maddux said. "When you play with 24 other guys, some guys are really easy to root for and some you could care less. I think D-Lee is one of those guys who is really easy to root for."

Juan Pierre doubled to open the Cubs' third against Marquis, advanced on Ronny Cedeno's sacrifice and scored on Walker's infield single.

Jones, who entered the game batting .194, made it 2-0 with a leadoff homer in the fourth, his second of the year. In the Chicago fifth, Pierre reached on a fielding error by second baseman David Eckstein and two outs later, Ramirez belted his third homer to go ahead, 4-0. Ramirez also had been scuffling and came into the game batting .189.

"Aramis has been flirting with that fence for awhile," Baker said. "I'm just glad he caught one."

Maddux helped himself in the seventh when he singled, advanced on a wild pitch and on a sacrifice by Pierre before scoring on Cedeno's double. Marquis was pulled, and Walker greeted Brad Thompson with a two-run single. The three RBIs raised Walker's career total to 500.

"A few days ago, I got triple digits in homers," Walker said. "You look back in your career, it's stuff you'll remember."

Pinch-hitter Hector Luna hit an RBI double in the Cardinals' eighth off Roberto Novoa, and Gary Bennett hit a two-run double off Ryan Dempster in the ninth.

Maddux is the only Cubs starter who has pitched into the seventh inning this season.

"It says a lot for experience," Baker said. "He's not doing any more than what his Hall of Fame career has indicated."

This is the last year of the pitcher's contract with the Cubs. Would he like to talk about an extension?

"Let's just play," Maddux said. "It's not the time for that right now. The Cubs have a lot more problems than worrying about me right now. Let's take care of what we need to do to get better quicker and cross that bridge when we get to it."

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