The Seattle starter bests Greg Maddux 2-1, extending breakout year

SEATTLE Ñ When spring training began in February, Gil Meche's goals were modest: Make the Seattle Mariners' rotation as the fifth starter. Stay healthy. Have fun.

'Mostly, I just wanted to enjoy pitching in the big leagues, not take any day for granted,' he says.

Things have changed since then. Meche, 24, is 9-3, second only to teammate Jamie Moyer (10-3) in victories after beating his idol, Greg Maddux, and the Atlanta Braves 2-1 Sunday at Safeco Field.

A spot in next month's All-Star Game at Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field is somewhere between a possibility and a probability.

'It's not something I'm thinking about, but if it happens, it would make a good story,' Meche says.

At this time last year, an All-Star berth was light years from Meche's mind. After missing the 2001 season because of rotator cuff surgery, then undergoing the knife again in October of that year, his future as a pitcher was in jeopardy.

The 2002 season was less than a rousing success Ñ a 4-6 record with a 6.51 ERA in 13 starts and 25 appearances for Double-A San Antonio. In between, there was a slow rehabilitation process and no guarantees of a return to the majors.

'He had a long rehab period and a lot of self-doubt,' Seattle pitching coach Bryan Price says.

But Meche slowly worked back into the form he showed as a 20-year-old rookie with the Mariners during the second half of the 1999 season, when he was 8-4 with a 4.73 ERA in 15 starts. Back then, control was the biggest issue. He struck out 47, but walked 57, in 85 innings.

This season, Meche has his fastball humming and hitting the right spots. In 83 1/3 innings, he owns a 3.13 ERA, has allowed 73 hits, struck out 63 and walked only 25. Nobody has been more instrumental to the Mariners' American League-best record to date.

'Gil has been phenomenal,' second baseman Bret Boone says. 'I said at spring training we would lean on the pitchers who had been there before, but for us to be really successful, we were going to have to have somebody step up like a Ryan Franklin or Gil Meche. Gil has answered the bell big-time.'

Sunday's game at Safeco was special for Meche, a Lafayette, La., native who grew up watching Atlanta play on WTBS and idolizing Maddux. Meche beat Roger Clemens and the New York Yankees 6-0 at Yankee Stadium on April 29, but beating Maddux was a close No. 2 on his thrill list.

'There was a lot of adrenaline going, facing Maddux for the first time,' Meche says. 'Through Little League and high school, the Braves were the only thing I watched. I saw Greg pitch over and over. Hard to believe I was out there pitching against him.'

Maddux was impressed with his adversary's performance.

'He threw real well,' Maddux says. 'He had a very good breaking ball Ñ slider, curve, whatever he calls it, it broke well. A good fastball and good mound presence. The other guy pitched better, plain and simple. I got outpitched.'

Seattle catcher Dan Wilson says Meche can use four pitches effectively, but placement has been just as important.

'Gil has tremendous velocity on his fastball,' Wilson says. 'It's back in the mid-90s. When you can do that and mix in your curveball, slider and change-up, you are going to be a tough pitcher. And his location has been good. With Gil, that's very important. Right now, he's near the top of the league in effectiveness among starters.'

Meche was only OK during the spring, leaving Price crossing his fingers. The fingers aren't crossed anymore.

'I don't want to say I'm surprised by Gil's performance,' Price says. 'The ability has always been there. He gave us a taste of what he could do in 1999 and 2000. The surprise was, he was able to come in after not having a great spring training and show he's all the way back healthy. His stuff has impressed me as much as anything.

'Gil is pitching with confidence and has a high expectation to win. For a young guy who could very easily say, 'I'm the No. 5 starter, if I win as many as I lose, it's a good season,' he just hasn't done that. He sets a very high standard for himself. When he's on the mound, you can tell he expects good things to happen.'

The Mariners don't want to get ahead of themselves in projecting what Meche can be down the road. At the moment, he's trying to focus on the now.

'Things are happening so fast for me,' Meche says. 'I mean, 13 starts and nine wins Ñ who would have thought I would be saying that after what I've been through? I just have to maintain what I'm doing between starts, not try to do too much and save a little bit for the end of the season.'

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