NL wild card Cubs lead Giants by half-game, Astros by 1½ and Padres by 2½ (magic number: 7)
Remaining schedules: Chicago vs. Cincinnati (Mon-Thurs), vs. Atlanta (Fri-Sun)
San Francisco at San Diego (Tues-Thurs), at Los Angeles (Fri-Sun)
Houston vs. St. Louis (Mon-Wed), vs. Colorado (Fri-Sun)
San Diego vs. San Francisco (Tues-Thurs), at Arizona (Fri-Sun)
Maddux up to his old tricks
Pitcher records win No. 15 for 17th consecutive season
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
A Cubs fan makes her presence felt at PNC Park on Thursday afternoon. (Mark Genito/AP)
PITTSBURGH -- Greg Maddux remained in a class by himself.
Maddux led the Chicago Cubs to a 6-3 victory Thursday over the Pittsburgh Pirates and became the first pitcher to win at least 15 games in 17 consecutive seasons. More important to Maddux, the win helped the Cubs complete their third sweep of the Pirates, and ninth overall this season.
"We knew it was going to be hard to score runs off of this guy," Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon said. "The combination of a guy who has 300 wins ... and a young team that has a tendency to go out of the strike zone -- that's not a good combination.
"I don't know when we will see another 300-game winner again, maybe never in our lifetime," McClendon said. "This guy is special."
The Cubs know that. They know Maddux can pitch, field and even help himself with the bat, as he did with a two-run single in the second inning. Maddux (15-10) scattered seven hits over six innings, retiring 11 in a row in one stretch.
"He's the same guy, win or lose," Cubs catcher Paul Bako said. "He's obviously got more than 300 wins, but if he had 20 wins in the big leagues, he'd be the same guy. It shows you what type of person he is."
The win was No. 304 for Maddux, who ranks 20th on the all-time list. Next up is Mickey Welch, who won 307.
"The guy's unbelievable," Cubs reliever Kent Mercker said of Maddux. "For me watching that game, I see him trying to dive back into first base (in the top of the second) and see him making a diving attempt at the ball (in the bottom half of the second). That's just Maddux right there. He could've got himself tagged and just done nothing or let that ground ball go by, but that's why he's a Hall of Famer."
Last year, the right-hander passed Cy Young when he recorded his 16th consecutive season of 15 wins. Young -- yes, that Cy Young -- had done so 15 years in a row. Maddux knows all about Young -- he's got four trophies named after the Hall of Fame pitcher at home.
"You always have your goals and it's always to win 20," Maddux said. "But one of your goals is to pitch 200 innings. If you can go out there and get your 200 innings, then you have to be doing something right. Getting the 200 innings for me, personally, means more than the wins because you really can't control the wins and losses as much as you can showing up every fifth day and getting your 200 innings."
Mission accomplished -- he now has 201 2/3 innings. But Maddux may find himself starting the last game of the regular season Oct. 3 against his former team, the Atlanta Braves. And the way the National League Wild Card race has been going, it could be a critical game.
"I want to worry about getting ready for my next start and cross that bridge when we get to it," Maddux said about possibly facing the Braves. "I'm facing the Reds before that and getting ready for that. I don't think it's too healthy to overlook one team."
Think the Braves are looking ahead at what the Cubs rotation might be?
"Let's wait," Maddux said. "That's 10 days away. If you don't win your next start, that game might not matter. Let's do what you can the next start and go from there."
Maddux improved to 8-3 with a 2.67 ERA in the second half. Thanks to his effort, the Cubs kept pressure on the San Francisco Giants, who started the day with a half-game lead in the Wild Card race. San Francisco plays host to Houston on Thursday night.
"I'd rather be on this side knowing we got a win than be on the other side trying to win," [Cubs manager Dusty] Baker said.
Mark Grudzielanek drove in two runs and Sammy Sosa added a run and an RBI single as Chicago won for the 10th time in its last 12 games.
Nelson Figueroa (0-3) was making his 33rd career start, and third this year for the Pirates. Maddux was making his 602nd career start. Guess what happened?
Sosa walked to open the Cubs' second against Figueroa and reached third on Nomar Garciaparra's double. Grudzielanek singled to bring Sosa around, and Garciaparra followed suit by coming home on Bako's double to make it 2-0.
Maddux then singled through a drawn-in infield to drive in Grudzielanek and Bako and push the lead to 4-0. It was the pitcher's 10th hit of the season and increased his season RBI total to five.
"It was a [lucky] ground ball with the infield in," Maddux said of his hit. "Sometimes you don't have to be good to have success. The guy made a good pitch. It's a tired ground ball that snuck through because the infield was in.
"Bako got the big hit right before. Bako did it -- he got the real hit," Maddux said.
Rob Mackowiak doubled with one out in the Pirates' second and Craig Wilson followed with his 28th home run to make it 4-2. If there's been a blemish on Maddux's season, his first back with the Cubs since 1992, it's that he's given up a career-high 30 home runs.
The Cubs got a brief scare later in the inning when Maddux belly-flopped in an attempt to snare an infield hit from Abraham Nunez. With the wind knocked out of him, the veteran hurler took a little extra time to get up.
"That was stupid," Maddux said. "I shouldn't have dove. You never dive toward first. You're not supposed to dive. I just needed a second for breathing again."
"This guy's an athlete," Baker said. "He can run, he can field his position, he can hit. He can pitch, definitely. He's been great for us while we've had him."
Moises Alou doubled with one out in the sixth and scored on Sosa's single for a 5-2 lead.
The Pirates added a run on Ty Wigginton's RBI single in the sixth, but Grudzielanek made it 6-3 with an RBI double in the ninth.
The Cubs are 7-2 on this extended 12-game, four-city road trip heading into a weekend series against the New York Mets.
"They found a way to win three times in close games," Pittsburgh's Jack Wilson said of the Cubs. "That's how you make the playoffs. That's why they are a playoff team."
"Last year's gone," Baker said when asked to compare the Cubs' run for the Central Division in 2003. "I try not to think about last year. That's over with. We have to think about what we have to do this year. No finer time to make a move than down the stretch here."