Limelight doesn't suit Maholm

Limelight doesn't suit Maholm

BRADENTON, Fla. -- It's pretty safe to say that Paul Maholm is the most inconspicuous member of the Pirates' five-man rotation.

Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny tend to get most of the hype. Matt Morris is the recognized veteran on the staff. And Zach Duke gets asked almost daily if he will return to his 2005 form.

Then, in the middle of it all, Maholm just keeps on pitching -- and pitching well.

"I would rather be the unnoticed guy," Maholm said, grinning. "The stats aren't going to dazzle anybody, but it's good enough to be one of the better starters in the league. If it goes unnoticed, then it does. That's fine with me."

Other than his start against the Yankees on March 13, when Maholm drew the lucky -- or unlucky, depending on how you look at it -- straw to pitch to celebrity Billy Crystal, the southpaw has flown under the radar.

But if Sunday was a harbinger for the season ahead, Maholm might want to start getting ready to be noticed.

Making his fifth start of the spring in the Pirates' 8-0 victory over the Yankees on Sunday, Maholm became the first Bucs starter to finish six innings in a Grapefruit League game this year. And he did so, just as he has for most of the spring, with very little laboring involved.

Granted the Yankees didn't bring their "A" team, leaving most of their regular starters behind in Tampa, Fla. But nevertheless, Maholm showcased notable efficiency and command throughout almost the entire outing.

"I think he came into camp with a very good attitude," Pirates manager John Russell said. "He carried it over into his workouts. He carried it over into his pitching. He has thrown the ball well all spring."

Maholm allowed just two hits to the Yankees, giving up only 14 hits in 20 innings this spring.

The left-hander got into some trouble in the fifth inning, when he walked New York's first two hitters, but then bounced back to get two ground-ball outs, the second of which was an inning-ending double play. As insignificant as one frame in a March 23 game may be, for Maholm, the ability to make mid-inning adjustments is a sign that he has made another step forward in his development.

Afterward, Maholm attested to this, adding that he feels more comfortable with his mechanics than he did at this time a year ago.

"Now I feel like I can go into the season and everything will be there," said Maholm, who went 10-15 with a 5.02 ERA in 2007, his second full season in the Majors. "Now I'm able to slow the game down and throw my pitch, and know that on any given night, I can go out and beat any given team."

As he has worked his way up to get season ready, Maholm has made it a goal to do a better job of challenging hitters and to use his fastball early in the count to set up the rest of his pitching repertoire. He's been successful on both accounts, evidenced by the fact that he had allowed just one walk and had struck out seven coming into Sunday's start.

For the Pirates, there's little debating that the success of this club will lie heavily on the arms of its starters. And with the uncertainty surrounding what realistic expectations are for the back end of the rotation, Maholm's performance is that much more critical.

"For us to be successful, we need those guys to be consistent and we need them to get us six quality innings and we'll see what happens after that," Russell said. "We feel like they have the ability to do that. Some of the consistency [Maholm's] been doing all spring, he's been able to get himself in position to make good pitches when he needs to."

After the game, Russell also announced that Maholm would be the third pitcher in the team's starting rotation.

Maholm is at the point in his career -- much like Snell, Gorzelanny and Duke -- where the "young" label isn't really appropriate. With more than two years of experience and nearly 400 innings under his belt, Maholm has the necessary experience to raise his expectations.

"That's kind of the time where I've got to get over the hump and start winning," Maholm said. "I'm definitely going to put the pressure on me since it's my time to step up. With me going out and having one good start and then two bad, that can't happen anymore."

The lefty will make one final Grapefruit League start before making his season debut a week from Thursday in Atlanta.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.