Maholm aiming for Reds rotation spot

Paul Maholm has pitched in the bullpen but prefers starting.  

Kyle Terada/Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

SURPRISE, AZ. — Paul Maholm walked to the mound, fiddled with the rosin bag, stepped on the rubber — and couldn’t believe his eyes.

"Arismendy Alcantara? How ironic?" Maholm remembers thinking to himself.

It was a day to make the Chamber of Commerce people rub their palms together as 15,331 fans sat in Sloane Park, new spring home of the Chicago Cubs on Friday afternoon.

But Maholm saw only one person of the more than 15,000 surrounding. Arismendy Alcantara. And why is that so meaningful?

Alcantara was the last better Maholm faced during the 2014 season and the date and the batter and the result is embedded in Maholm’s mind.

"It was August 1 in Los Angeles and Alcantara was batting," said Maholm. "He hit the ball to the right side and I ran to cover first base. . .and tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in my right knee."

His season was over and his short stay with the Los Angeles Dodgers was over.

Now Maholm, a 32-year-old left hander, is trying to win a spot in the Cincinnati Reds rotation and it was his first spring exhibition appearance. And there stood Alcantara in the batter’s box. This time Maholm didn’t have to cover first base. Alcantara flew out to left field. Malhom took a deep breath of relief and proceeded to pitch two scoreless innings and gave up only one hit.

Facing Alcantara probably was easier than that day in 2008 when Maholm pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates and had to face actor Billy Crystal in a spring exhibition game.

Crystal had signed a one-day, no-pay contract to play an exhibition game for the New York Yankees and take one at-bat. He led off the game against Maholm.

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"I was a bit nervous and didn’t know how to approach it," said Maholm. "Some of our guys told me to just hit him and get it over with. I didn’t know whether to go after him or ease up."

Maholm didn’t ease up, but he didn’t attack him like a major-league hitter. "I just threw him straight batting practice fastballs, tried to throw it over the plate."

Crystal fouled one, "And nearly got a hit," said Maholm. "How embarrassing would that have been?" Eventuallly he struck out Crystal, "And the circus was over until I had to talk about it after the game with about 60 writers."

Ever since Maholm signed with the Pirates out of Mississippi State as the No. 1 draft pick in 2003 he has been a starting pitcher.

But for the most part last year he found himself working out of the Dodgers bullpen, "Because they had such a great rotation. I didn’t mind because I was playing with a very good team, a winning team."

But his heart and soul are as a starter and it is the main reason he signed a one-year minor league contract with the Reds. He saw the Reds trade two starters last winter (Mat Latos, Alfredo Simon) and saw a chance to return to that role.

"It is fun to watch a guy like Paul pitch because he knows what he wants to do with his arsenal," said manager Bryan Price. "He is very precise with his location with a little back door cutter and a little slide step change-up to get the hitter out in front. And he throws a good inside fastball. He knows how to pitch."

He knows how to get ground balls, too, which would make him a snug fit in the uncomfortable (for pitchers) constrictions of Great American Small Park. Over his nine major-league seasons he has coaxed 199 double plays, most in the majors over the last decade.

"Yeah, that would be a plus for me," he said. "But no matter where I pitch, what ballpark it is, I always try to keep the ball down. That keeps you out of trouble in any park, no matter how big or how small."

What intrigues Maholm more about pitching for the Reds than the smallness of his home park is the defense he would have behind him.

"You look around from the mound and you see either Gold Glovers or Gold Glove runnersup or Gold Glove candidates at all four positions — Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Zack Cozart and Todd Frazier. That’s a comfortable feeling for a ground-ball pitcher."

If he makes the Reds, he won’t mind facing Alcantara again. And, for sure, he won’t have to face Billy Crystal.