DETROIT - Three years ago, soft-spoken Mike Maroth attracted a lot of unwanted attention. His stats were miserable and so were the Detroit Tigers.
Maroth was the first major league pitcher in 23 years to lose at least 20 games. And the hapless Tigers were one of the worst teams in baseball history, losing an American League-record 119 games.
Maroth started 0-9 in 2003 and needed to win three of his last four outings just to finish 9-21. His ERA was a hefty 5.73. Prior to Maroth, the last major league pitcher to lose 20 games in a season was the Oakland Athletics' Brian Kingman, who went 8-20 in 1980.
Mike Maroth: 4-1 record, 1.78 ERA heading into today's start at Minnesota.
Kingman, hoping to remain baseball's last 20-game loser, was in the stands in Toronto the night Maroth suffered setback No. 20. Kingman had his voodoo doll with him - the same one he had taken to four previous starts in which a pitcher could have tied his mark for futility but didn't.
It would have been easy for Maroth to hide after many of his lopsided losses, but he didn't. He answered every question, which earned him a ton of respect.
The only thing Maroth didn't want to talk about was Kingman. Maroth found his actions to be quite strange. He can't imagine following around the next pitcher who is approaching 20 losses.
Maroth, a 28-year-old left-hander who pitched for the Mud Hens in 2001 and part of 2002, was determined not to let his dismal season ruin his big-league career.
"I learned a lot from that 2003 season," said Maroth, one of nine holdovers from the Bad News Tigers. "You get an opportunity to learn when you're going through hard times, and it helps toughen you up. It's a time to evaluate yourself, and that's what I was able to do. It definitely makes you mentally stronger, as long as you can get through it.
"Obviously, I was pitching OK because they kept giving me the ball. Things just didn't work out. It was a bad season all the way around, for both me and the team."
Maroth has showed steady improvement since then. He won 11 games in 2004 and followed that up with a career-high 14 victories last season, going 6-3 down the stretch to finish at .500.
Maroth has surprised nearly everyone with his quick start this year, as have the Tigers. He carries a 4-1 record and a 1.78 ERA into today's matchup against the Minnesota Twins.
Maroth has given up multiple runs just once in his five starts. However, he's just 1-5 in his career at the Metrodome with a 5.07 ERA.
No one will ever confuse Maroth with being a power pitcher. He has baffled teams with an array of off-speed pitches.
"It's enjoyable coming to the ballpark now because we're winning," Maroth said. "It's been a lot of fun so far, for both me and the team. I am winning because we are finally playing well. I have a lot of confidence right now when I go to the mound."
Maroth, among the league leaders in wins and ERA, won his first three starts this season. He was the first Tigers pitcher to do that since David Wells in 1993. This year is the first time Maroth has ever pitched for a winning team in Detroit.
He credits first-year manager Jim Leyland for the Tigers' turnaround.
"I think he's very positive," Maroth said. "There's a fire to him. You can tell he loves the game, and he knows the game well. It's a good combination. He's very involved in everything that's going on out there on the field."
Prior to this season, Maroth was best known for his historic 21-loss season in 2003, his first full season in the major leagues. But so far, the soft-throwing southpaw is doing his best imitation of Mickey Lolich and trying to make people forget about his infamous past.