CHICAGO (MCT) — Paul Maholm started his Cubs career last January as the answer to a trivia question:
Who was the first free agent in Cubs history to announce his own signing on Twitter?
Four months later, Maholm may be the answer to more relevant question:
Do the Cubs have enough starting pitching to compete in a weakened National League Central this year?
After Maholm tossed seven shutout innings Wednesday in a 1-0 victory over the Braves, most of the leading indicators pointed to "yes."
"I'm going to have another rough outing at some point," Maholm said. "That's part of baseball. But I'm going to ride this for as long as I possibly can, and hopefully for a good while."
Maholm allowed three hits for his fourth straight victory and has posed a 1.07 ERA (three runs over 251/3 innings) over his last four starts.
The Cubs went 4-2 on the homestand against the Dodgers and Braves, two of the league's strongest clubs, and starting pitching was the reason why. The Braves came into Wrigley Field leading the league in scoring, before the three Cubs starters _ Maholm, Ryan Dempster and Jeff Samardzija limited them to two runs over 21 innings.
The Cubs have won 10 of their last 17 after the 3-11 start, shaking off tough losses against the Reds and the Braves in the last week alone. If they had not dug themselves so deep a hole, they might be one of baseball's surprise teams. Certainly no one outside the clubhouse expected Dempster, Samardzija or Maholm to string together so many dominant starts.
"We have some horses," Bryan LaHair said. "We have some starting pitching that's real tough." LaHair's clutch, run-scoring single in the seventh off Braves starter Tim Hudson snapped a scoreless duel.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez opted to pitch to the red hot LaHair with David DeJesus on third and two outs.
"Our best hitter right now, LaHair, came through," manager Dale Sveum said. "That's what your best hitters do sometimes."
James Russell and Rafael Dolis combined for two innings of scoreless relief, with Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol glued to their bullpen chairs.
The big moment came in the sixth when Chipper Jones lined out to second baseman Darwin Barney with two men on to end the inning. Jones, who is retiring after the season and was playing in his last game at Wrigley Field _ hit it right up the middle. But coach Pat Listach had positioned Barney perfectly behind second base.
"Chipper almost hit me in the forehead," Maholm said. "And Barney caught it. It's scary, and then it's very good. Between all of our staff and Pat and Dave (McKay), they've been doing a great job on positioning guys."
Barney said his experience at shortstop makes shifting easier to do. "If guys want to force the ball through that hole, our thought is we'll let them do it," he said. "They're going to hit it hard up the middle, and that's where we're going to play."
Sveum calls it his 90 percent rule _ if a hitter hits a ball into an area 90 percent of the time, it's worth the risk to shift the fielders accordingly.
"I've always had a gambler's attitude," he said. "To me, you're gambling but all it is doing is something different than what (traditionally has been employed in) the history of baseball."