Paul Maholm: Steeliness in the eye of storms

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Paul Maholm

LOS ANGELES -- Paul Maholm always has been about the poise.

When he was 10 and pitching in his native Holly Springs, Miss., he was known to display the same flat-line reaction whether striking out the side or giving up a grand slam.

When he was 14, he was steady enough to beat out an adult field to win the annual golf tournament at the Holly Springs Country Club.

"It's funny but, when Paul was playing baseball, they would say he had mound presence. When he golfed, they would say he had course management," his father, Gary Maholm, said with a chuckle. "Whatever anyone calls it, Paul's always had it. Never too high or too low."

That trait would become Paul Maholm's bedrock in the years to come. And it never served him better than in the past 18 months, when he coped with three crises, three strikes that could have knocked him out in more ways than one.

All while completing a stunning, sizzling leap through the Pirates' system and into their rotation.

Stunning to most observers, anyway.

"Not to me. I've watched him a long time now," fellow rookie pitcher Zach Duke said. "As a pitcher, he's got the stuff to be successful at any level. And he's been through so much off the field ... I don't think anything's ever going to affect him on the field."

Strike one

Maholm, 23, is 2-1 with a 2.08 earned run average in his first five starts since being promoted to Pittsburgh Aug. 28. Given that he has less than two full seasons of professional experience -- he was the Pirates' first-round draft pick in 2004 -- those numbers are exceptional.

They go beyond that when considering where he was a year ago.

It was May 15, 2004, and Maholm was pitching at the Class A level in Lynchburg, Va., facing Winston-Salem's Casey Rogowski, a bear of a first baseman with a power stroke.

Maholm hung a curveball, and Rogowski crushed it.

Right back into the left side of Maholm's face.

He lay motionless for 15 minutes, bleeding on the mound, and was taken away by ambulance. Once the swelling subsided, he learned that the orbital bone around his left eye had been broken, as were his sinus and nose. These were not tidy breaks, either. The bones were pulverized.

Doctors told Maholm he had been lucky on two fronts. One was that the ball did not strike a part of his head that could have killed him. Another was that the eye was unscathed.

"Believe me, I was counting my blessings," Maholm recalled.

He had extensive surgery in Pittsburgh to reconstruct his face, including the insertion of titanium plates to connect the many loose bones.

Just three months later, he was pitching competitively again in the low minors, but he averaged an earned run and a walk per inning, well out of character.

He admits now he did it out of stubbornness.

"I had double vision in the eye, and I knew it," Maholm said. "I just wanted to prove to the Pirates I could get back on the mound."

Another surgery was needed in November to address the double vision by resetting the bones. That cost him participation in any fall or winter league, and it sent him into this past spring training a branded man of sorts.

It is common, baseball insiders say, for pitchers never to recover from such a trauma. They will flinch at line drives, change styles, even quit. That is why, when Maholm pitched during this past spring training, Pirates officials monitored his reactions intensely, even when he was throwing batting practice from behind an L-shaped fence.

They liked what they saw, enough to start him out at Class AA Altoona.

Strike two

"Once my vision got back to 100 percent, it was like the injury never happened," Maholm said. "I don't know how else to explain it. As soon as I got to Altoona, I stopped thinking about throwing a pitch and getting hit again. Sure, I had some close calls, but I just looked at those as part of the game."

Maholm pitched well enough for the Curve that he earned an invitation to Major League Baseball's Futures Game in mid-July, but fate would hit him hard again.

A week before the event, his mother, Linda Maholm, died following a 3 1/2-year battle with colon cancer.

This time, the emotions were not checked. Crestfallen, Maholm received a leave of absence and informed the Pirates he was not certain if he could pitch in the Futures Game.

"I was a huge mama's boy," he said. "When I was young, I would go to her when I wanted something. When I was playing, I would talk to her all the time. She always gave me everything. ... You know, it's good that she made it as long as she did. And it's better now because she's not having to suffer through the chemo and everything. I know she's watching every game I throw."

Maholm ended up in Detroit for the Futures Game and, no doubt still reeling, was erratic.

It would get better. He would go 6-2 with Altoona and earn a promotion to Class AAA Indianapolis in late July. He fared nearly as well there and was summoned to PNC Park a month later.

Strike three

On Aug. 29, the afternoon of what was to be his major-league debut, Maholm had spent the previous night and most of that morning flicking through the television for updates on Hurricane Katrina. He and his wife, Jessica, had bought a new house on property in Biloxi, Miss, shortly after their December wedding. It was squarely in Katrina's path.

Much of what should have been the greatest day of Maholm's life was spent on the cell phone communicating with in-laws in Biloxi about their safety and that of their property.

Adding to the distractions, roughly a dozen family and friends made the 21-hour drive to Pittsburgh to watch his debut, but most were forced to drive right back home when the game was rained out.

If any of it fazed him, it did not show when he hurled eight shutout innings the next night in Milwaukee against the Brewers.

The house absorbed little damage, just a small hole in the roof. Maholm said he and Jessica plan to move back at season's end.

"We got lucky," he said.

Maholm hardly is the boasting type, sounding folksy with his rich southern accent but invariably soft-spoken.

Still, he does express a measure of pride in his perseverance of the past year.

"With all that happened ... I'm sure there were a lot of people who felt I would go through the year and struggle, just trying to get back into form from getting hit and everything else. I've just kind of taken it all in stride, just done what I've always done."

He laughed.

"You know, this is a huge shock for me, the success I've had so early. I expected some rough innings. Luckily, I've made the pitches when I needed to. And it's been fun. I don't think I could ask for more. I'm in the big leagues. I'm living a dream."


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1938.


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