CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Braves left-hander Paul Maholm has been around long enough to experience things far more troubling than battling inconsistent command during a spring game played a month before the start of the regular season.
Over the course of the next few weeks, Maholm will attempt to be sharper than he was on Thursday, allowing five earned runs in just 2 2/3 innings in a 10-5 loss to the Phillies at Bright House Stadium. The challenge to make progress leading up to the start of the season is one that every big league pitcher currently faces.
It is also far less daunting than the one Maholm encountered after getting hit in the face with a line drive during the second month of his first full professional season.
"Obviously it wasn't the best scene in the world with me being laid out on the mound," Maholm said while describing what he experienced on May 15, 2004. "It's part of the game and you move on."
Less than a year after being selected by the Pirates with the eighth overall selection in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, Maholm was pitching for Class A Advanced Lynchburg when he hung a curveball that Casey Rogowski lined directly back to the mound. The ball shattered the left side of Maholm's face, leaving him with a broken nose and a shattered left orbital.
Doctors put three titanium plates around Maholm's left eye and reconstructed his nose, which was smashed in many pieces. One significant scar across the top of his head provides a constant reminder of the horrific incident.
But nine years and 216 Major League starts later, Maholm displays no signs of psychological scars. While he might be cognizant of the potential effect of hanging a curveball, the 30-year-old left-hander has never been hesitant to continue pursuing the dreams that materialized during those childhood days when Tom Glavine was his idol and the Braves were his favorite team.
"Obviously getting hit and having facial surgery and a broken nose is not being fortunate," Maholm said. "But it could have been worse. I could have lost my eyesight or it could have hit me in the temple and killed me. I just felt I was extremely blessed to get through it. Baseball is baseball. I was just going to get back out there and not really think about anything else."
Less than 16 months after being struck in the face, Maholm showed his mental resolve while tossing eight scoreless innings against the Brewers and winning his Major League debut. The four-hit gem was completed on Aug. 30, 2005, one day after Maholm's hometown of Ocean Spring, Miss., endured the damaging effects of Hurricane Katrina.
"He's a tough kid," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said of Maholm, who posted a 3.54 ERA in the 11 starts after being acquired from the Cubs to solidify Atlanta's rotation down the stretch last year.
One of the Spring Training fielding drills Braves pitchers complete requires them to field "Incrediballs" that are hit directly toward them as they complete their delivery. When Gonzalez noticed one of his coaches hitting the ball hard toward Maholm, he motioned for him to take it easy.
"Maholm was like, 'No, no, no. Fire it at me,'" Gonzalez said.
"My mentality is that I pitched for however long and didn't get hit," Maholm said. "Obviously, I've been hit with line drives in other places since then. It's the unfortunate part of the game. But it's not like I'm going to be gun-shy throwing a pitch just because I've been hit before."
Maholm also showed some resolve when the Pirates designated him for assignment following the 2011 season. He hooked on with the Cubs last year and promptly allowed six runs in his first two regular-season starts. But by posting a 3.04 ERA in the 19 appearances that followed, he caught the attention of the Braves, who acquired him on July 30.
"He's that veteran pitcher you don't worry about," Braves general manager Frank Wren said. "You don't worry about him not being able to get through his starts and not being able to get around on those nights when he doesn't have his best stuff."
Maholm admittedly did not have his best stuff as the Phillies took advantage of his inconsistent command and some shaky defense while tallying three first-inning runs on Thursday. Ben Revere drew a leadoff walk before Chase Utley and Ryan Howard recorded consecutive one-out hits. An error by second baseman Tyler Pastornicky allowed Utley and Howard to score.
"Things were just a little off," Maholm said. "It's early in camp, the second time out and I'm trying to get back in the groove of setting up hitters and getting the mechanics to where I want them to be. I was just a little off."
After working a perfect second inning, Maholm allowed Utley to double off the center-field wall in the third inning. Working past the second inning for the first time since September, he showed some signs of fatigue and issued his second walk of the afternoon and allowed two more hits before exiting with two outs.
"Not the results you obviously want to have," Maholm said. "But I think it was a step forward, because I know what I need to work on between this one and the next start. I'll just continue to build and get ready for April."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less