That’s the year Maddux came to Wrigley Field in the Cubs home opener and tossed 8 1/3 shutout innings in a 1-0 Atlanta Braves victory against his former team.
Based on his performance in the Cubs home opener at Wrigley some 13 years later, you wouldn’t know that Maddux, now in his 21st major league season, was soon turning 40.
The crafty right-hander allowed four hits and made just one key mistake Friday as the Cubs handed the St. Louis Cardinals their first loss of the year, 5-1. Maddux battled gusty winds of 25-30 mph and chilly 40-degree temperatures to win his regular season debut for the first time since his 2002 campaign with the Braves.
“It was windy out there,” Maddux told reporters after the game. “A couple of times, I struggled with my balance a little. As hard as it was to pitch, it was probably even harder to hit. It was different today. Not like Arizona, that’s for sure.”
The Cubs scored in each of their first four innings, pounding out nine hits and defeating their biggest rival who had entered the day fresh off a three-game sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Derrek Lee led off the Cubs scoring with his second home run of the young season, a line drive rocket into the left field bleachers off Cardinals starter and losing pitcher Jeff Suppan in the first inning.
With the wind blowing directly in all day, Lee had some doubts about whether he’d gotten enough on the home run swing.
SPOTLIGHT: DERREK LEE
Derrek Lee watches his second home run of the season in the first inning off Jeff Suppan of the St. Louis Cardinals during the Opening Day game on April 7, 2006 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
“You never know with the wind the way it was,” Lee said. “I don’t think you could hit them today and know for sure whether they were going to be out.”
With Lee’s homer, the Cubs have now scored in the first inning of all three contests this season. They are 2-1 in their first three games.
“When it’s cold like that, you never know how many runs you’re going to score,” Lee added. “So it was nice to get that first run and it kind of snow-balled from there. We got ‘Doggie’ a lead and he pitched great today.”
In the second inning, Ronny Cedeno hit an opposite field triple into right field to score Matt Murton and extend the Cubs lead to 2-0. Later on in the fourth inning, Murton would make a tough catch on a hard-hit fly ball to deep left center from Jim Edmonds and then fire a strike back to first base to pick off Juan Encarnacion for an inning-ending double play.
With the Cubs at the plate that same inning, Juan Pierre smoked a single into right to score Cedeno and make it 5-0. Earlier in the at-bat, Pierre and the Cubs had tried to execute a suicide squeeze play with the ball rolling just foul.
“We’ve been working on those things,” manager Dusty Baker said. “Early in the year when it’s tough to score runs in bunches, you have to take them when you can.”
Prior to Pierre’s second RBI of the season with his new club, an RBI single from Michael Barrett and a throwing error from Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein turned an early Cardinals deficit into a 4-0 Cubs lead.
Behind it all, there was Maddux. He held the Cardinals offense to three hits in six scoreless innings before allowing a solo home run in the seventh and making his exit after facing one more batter. With the Cubs having built a five-run lead for their on-field leader going into the inning, Maddux was in line for his 319th career victory.
“In the back of your mind, you always hope with the wind the way it is that if they crush it, it won’t go anywhere,” Maddux said of the playing conditions. “I don’t think you deliberately try to get a guy to hit a ball 400 feet in hopes that the wind will knock it down. It happened a couple of times today, but you quickly realize that you got lucky.”
Maddux would leave the game with only four hits and a walk next to his resume. He received a standing ovation from the sellout crowd of 40,869 as he departed in favor of right-hander Bob Howry.
“I was really honored by it,” Maddux said. “They treat you like this after all these years. It was a very special feeling for me.”
Maddux also continued his dominance against Cardinal teams by upping his record to 24-18 lifetime against the Redbirds. He was asked during the Cubs post-game news conference about whether his teammates thanked him for making quick pitches and keeping the Cubs defense off the field.
“Was it quick?” Maddux quipped. “Seemed like it took forever out there.”
Howry and Ryan Dempster closed the afternoon out in relief with 2 2/3 scoreless innings. Howry, signed as a free agent from the Cleveland Indians in the off-season to strengthen the Cubs bullpen, struck out the side in the eighth inning.
The Cubs won their 50th Wrigley Field home opener, running their record to 50-40-1 in home openers at the park. Included in that record is a 22-12-1 mark against the Cardinals. The Cubs had not beaten the Cards in a home opener since 1971.
Following the game, Baker told reporters: “Maddux pitched masterfully. The wind was on our side a couple of times today and we also got some good defense. It’s always nice to start off 1-0 at home. What a way to start off at home. Our guys played a very good game today.”
Game two of the three-game series with the Cardinals is scheduled for Saturday afternoon. Carlos Zambrano will make his second start of the season against Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter with a 1:20 p.m. (CDT) start time on Comcast Sports Net.