On his first day at spring training, Greg Maddux had to answer questions about whether this could be his final season.
After improving to 3-0 Monday night with a brilliant outing in the Cubs' 4-1 win over the Dodgers, the question may now be whether the potential free agent will get a two-year deal or three years.
In his first start as a 40-year-old, Maddux earned his 321st career win, allowing one run on three hits over eight innings and lowering his National League-leading earned-run average to 1.33.
"I heard Julio Franco say a million times that age is just a number," Maddux said. "I'm finally starting to understand what he meant by that. I used to laugh at him 10 years ago, but I know what he means now."
Todd Walker homered and drove in two runs, Ryan Dempster tied a club record with his 22nd straight save and the Cubs improved to 8-4 in a game that lasted only 1 hour 59 minutes.
"It's kind of Death Valley out there," Walker said. "You're not going to score a whole lot of runs here. I don't know what their normal game time is, but when you've got Greg on the mound it tends to expedite things a little bit."
Maddux was only 13-15 with a 4.24 ERA last year, igniting whispers that he was well past his prime. Now he looks like a prime-time pitcher and the ace of the Cubs' staff.
"I don't know about last year," he said. "Last year maybe you learned something about a hitter that helps you this year. I don't know how to compare last year to this year or anything like that. Just feel good about tonight and get ready for the Cardinals in a few days."
Now only 20 wins away from tying Roger Clemens on the all-time win list, Maddux could pass the Rocket early next season at his current rate.
"Based on what we've seen so far, I think he can pitch another two years," catcher Michael Barrett said. "And if he does that, I think he has the potential to pass Roger Clemens. It's a health issue at this point. Only he knows how he feels, but I do know that the last couple of starts have been as good of starts as I've seen the last two years."
Clemens ranks ninth on the all-time win list, while Maddux is 15th and needs eight more wins to tie Steve Carlton for 10th at 329. Clemens led the NL in ERA last season before retiring, but is keeping his options open on a comeback.
"Maddux still has the stuff and he's still got the heart to [pass Clemens]," catcher Henry Blanco said. "When you get older, you get smarter. He's been doing this for 20 years and he knows what it takes to win a ballgame and how to work the hitters. That's the most important thing in the big leagues. It doesn't matter how hard you throw. If you're smart enough, you're going to win a lot of games."
Maddux may be one of the last pitchers to win 300, though he expects Mets left-hander Tom Glavine (277) to join the club. After Glavine and Randy Johnson (265), the next closest active pitcher is David Wells with 227.
"There's probably a 12-year-old kid pitching somewhere right now who'll do it (win 300)," Maddux said with a laugh.