Maddux, the mental master, at his best during 1995 World Series run

Here’s a quick by the numbers look at Baseball Hall of Famer Greg Maddux.

Editor's note: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will spend the year looking back at the 25th anniversary of the 1995 World Series champion Atlanta Braves. In a season-long series that will run through October, we will capture all the key moments and hear from the participants as they share their memories. Today's installment focuses on Greg Maddux, who had the best season of his Hall of Fame career in 1995.

Over time, the specifics of Greg Maddux’s Hall of Fame career can get a little fuzzy. Given his mind-numbing consistency, one dominant season tends to blend into the next.

But his 1995 season stands out.

The same goes for the Braves. That was the year they won their one World Series championship during a run of 14 consecutive division titles while Maddux, their ace of aces, breezed to a fourth consecutive National League Cy Young award with arguably his best season.

Maddux had a 19-2 record for a career-best .905 winning percentage. His 1.63 ERA was almost a run lower than the next best pitcher that season (Randy Johnson at 2.48) and almost three runs better than the league average of 4.23.

On the 25th anniversary of the Braves’ World Series victory, it stands to reason that one of those exceptional seasons wouldn’t have happened without the other – not that Maddux would ever consider his singular accomplishments that year, well, singular.

When asked about his 1995 season, Maddux’s response was conspicuously void of the pronoun “I.”

“Just peaking,” Maddux said recently by phone from his Las Vegas home. “And we all kind of peaked together. All the pitchers were pretty much the same age. We were all in the same situation, we were all at the same point of our career. ... Everybody was married; they were having their kids. Everybody had over 500 innings in the big leagues. Everybody had a little bit of experience. You really to start to understand yourself as a pitcher over time. Everybody was having success together. We just rode it for a long time.”

For Maddux, that particular roll started midway through 1993, his first season in Atlanta after beginning his career with the Cubs. From July 31, 1993, through the end of the 1995 season, Maddux posted a 1.58 ERA, while going 44-12. He threw 20 complete games over a span of 66 starts, while walking only 72 – including eight intentionally - in 512 innings.

His 1994 season (16-6 with a 1.56 ERA) was similarly good to 1995, minus the flourish. There was no postseason in the strike-shortened season.

MORE FROM THE SERIES

» About the series
» FURMAN BISHER: Atlanta's finest moment
» SPRING TRAINING: Starting with replacement players
» MARK BRADLEY: A subdued season, a giddy ending
» BUILDING THE BRAVESHow the championship team was built
» CHIPPER JONES'No bigger beneficiary of '94 strike than me'
» ANNOUNCERS: Championship call years in the making
» DAVE SHOTKOSKI: Remembering pitcher killed in spring training
» MARQUIS GRISSOM: Dream comes true for Atlanta native
» BRIAN SNITKER: Remembering road to unprecedented run
» COVERING THE BRAVES: Former AJC beat writer recalls 'ridiculous endeavor'

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By 1995, headline writers were dubbing him “AutoMaddux.” Admirers around baseball referred to him as “Picasso” so often that it became almost cliché. However you described him, Maddux’s statistics were eyepopping then, and they still are 25 years later.

“I can’t explain it,” Maddux said. “It just happened. The only thing I tried to do honestly was just worry about my next pitch. That was the mantra I took. I know it sounds stupid, but really you go one pitch at a time. Do it long enough, it turns into something good.”

Part of the reason for his uncanny success had to be physical. Maddux had just turned 29 when he took the mound on opening day in 1995 against the Giants. In baseball terms, he was in his physical prime.

He had to overcome a bout of chicken pox, spending the final 10 days of spring training in quarantine and sneaking in bullpen sessions on the back fields in West Palm Beach. Otherwise, he was healthy and fresh, having gone more than eight months since his last start Aug. 11, 1994.

But that “next pitch” mantra, and his emphasis on mental preparation is what Maddux points to the fastest when asked about the 1995 season. First and foremost, he credits his relationship with mental skills coach Harvey Dorfman, whom he first met through his agent Scott Boras during his early years in Chicago.

“I’d touch base with him, read his book, or reread his book over time,” said Maddux, who recommended “The Mental ABCs of Pitching” to pitchers he’s coached in recent years at UNLV. “It was almost like part of the routine. We spend so much of our time practicing the physical parts of baseball, that sometimes we forget to practice the mental part. I made it into my routine to also practice the mental part of the game.”

Maddux did most of his mental preparation in the video room.

“(You’re) trying to figure out and understand what pitches work best to certain hitters in certain situations,” he said. “You’d look for their habits, their routines, areas in the strike zone where they had success and where they didn’t. And then you’d have to be able to control your nerves and make sure you think properly during games.”

Greg Maddux pitches against the Rockies in the 1995 postseason. (AJC file photo)
Greg Maddux pitches against the Rockies in the 1995 postseason. (AJC file photo)

So much of Maddux’s success came from his uncanny ability to read what hitters were trying to do from one pitch to the next. He wasn’t necessarily relying on a preconceived game plan.

Maddux brought up a great example of that from the 1995 season, when asked about a Jeff Bagwell home run that cost him his best chance at a no-hitter. Maddux had thrown Bagwell an 0-1 fastball to lead off the eighth inning of a May 28 start in Houston. Bagwell pulled it to left, accounting for the only hit in the only nine-inning one-hitter of Maddux’s career.

“I misread the swing before,” said Maddux, who won the game 3-1. “He fouled a ball off down the right-field line, so I thought he was a little bit late. But he wasn’t late; he just pulled off. I had the wrong reason for the wrong pitch coming up next.”

In hindsight, Maddux said, he would have thrown “something slow, or if I was going to throw a fastball, I would have thrown it away again.”

The level of concentration Maddux demanded of himself only got more intense as the 1995 season progressed. By October, it was at an all-time high. He came into that postseason knowing full well what pitching nervous could cost him. He learned the hard way when he got “bamboozled” – Maddux’s word – in two losses with the Cubs in the 1989 NL Championship Series.

“When you get nervous, sometimes you rush and you make bad decisions,” Maddux said. “That was a lot of what I did in the San Francisco series. I wasn’t able to control my nerves and make good decisions. Physically I was fine, but mentally I was terrible.”

The 1995 postseason brought out another similarity between Maddux and the Braves: They both had reputations for being dominant in the regular season but disappointing in October. At the time, Maddux had gone 1-3 with an 8.10 ERA in four postseason games.

He won his first postseason start as a Brave in the 1993 NLCS, holding the Phillies to two runs in seven innings, but he lost Game 6 while giving up five earned runs.

“Everybody said I was (bad) in the postseason,” Maddux said. “You put on your crash helmet, and you don’t listen to it. I was good at not worrying about stuff like that. I was not concerned with what people thought. I was concerned with what I was trying to do on the next pitch in my next start in my next game.”

The Braves needed a good postseason from Maddux in 1995, and they got it. They won four of his five starts that October, including both the opener and the Game 4 clincher of the best-of-five Division Series against the Colorado Rockies. Then he dominated the Reds for eight innings in Game 3 of a four-game sweep in the NLCS.

Maddux got his first taste of the World Series in Game 1 against Cleveland and responded by making one of the best starts of his career.

He outlasted Orel Hershiser, a veteran he had watched as a young pitcher because he had similar “velocity and shape” on his fastball. Maddux surrendered just two hits and two unearned runs in a 3-2 complete game victory. Only four balls left the infield.

“I remember doing everything I could to control my nerves, to make sure I thought properly,” Maddux said. “Usually that goes away after an inning or two, but that game it never went away. It was there all nine innings. It’s a battle. You fight yourself.”

Maddux said he kept his focus with “a lot of breathing and a lot of reminding and a lot of trust. You understand you’re nervous and you accepted it. You have to make sure you see what’s going on in front of you, what the hitters are doing, what their approaches are, and the counts and situations. And you have to remember the scouting reports and things like that. ...

“When the game is over, you’re pretty tired. Mentally, you’re pretty tired.”

Greg Maddux at his Hall of Fame induction in 2014.
Greg Maddux at his Hall of Fame induction in 2014.

Watching the game again 25 years later was a lot easier to take. On April 14, in honor of Maddux’s 54th birthday, MLB Network aired four of his best games while Maddux live-tweeted to raise money for COVID-19 charities. Game 1 of the 1995 World Series was the only one of the four games to air twice that day, once at midday and again at 10 p.m.

“What I enjoyed seeing were my teammates,” Maddux said. “You kind of keep in touch with some teammates and others you lose touch with. It’s cool seeing all them again.”

As for the game itself, Maddux said he’d probably forgotten about 80 percent of it. He remembered certain pitches, though, especially to Albert Belle.

“He hit a fly ball (off me) to right field that was caught,” Maddux said. “And that same ball was a home run in Cleveland (in Game 5) just because it plays a little shorter in right field than it did in Atlanta. That was two runs right there. Sometimes there’s a lot of luck involved, too.”

Maddux’s only loss of that postseason came 5-4 in Game 5 at Jacobs Field, which brought the series back to Atlanta for the legendary Game 6 clincher.

Tom Glavine credits Maddux with boosting his confidence for the finale during a car ride home from a workout the day before. Glavine recalls Maddux telling him not to change his approach because the Indians hadn’t changed theirs against him, and that it was fitting for the lifelong Brave to be on the mound.

Glavine threw eight one-hit innings while Maddux fought off nerves of another kind. “Every pitch seems like it’s in the ninth inning,” Maddux said. “It’s like the game is on the line from the moment the first pitch is being thrown.”

David Justice hit the go-ahead home run in the sixth, and Mark Wohlers nailed down the 1-0 win in the ninth, coaxing one final fly ball to the gap, where it was caught by Marquis Grissom.

“It was a huge relief,” Maddux said. “It was a feeling of excitement, achievement, and it was something you got to share with your teammates, not just yourself, and the city of Atlanta. It was pretty cool.”

Looking back on it now, Maddux figures the 1995 Braves might not have even had the best team of their unprecedented run. “We had tons of good teams; that ’95 team we just happened to win.”

But it was their best year.