CHICAGO -- When Joe Maddon crossed paths with Bartolo Colon a couple days ago at Wrigley Field, he used his own nickname to greet him.
"Hey, Pancho, que pasa?'' said Maddon.
Pancho? Why Pancho?
Maddon stuck Colon with that tag back in 2004, when he was Mike Scioscia's bench coach in Anaheim and Colon was somehow winning 18 games for the Angels despite a 5.01 ERA. The Cubs manager says he even wrote Pancho, not Colon, on the lineup card on the nights that the hard-throwing Colon pitched.
Maddon had heard Colon talking about a burro named Pancho on his family farm in the Dominican Republic, and he never forgot.
"He always wanted to be like Pancho, the hardest-working animal on the farm,'' Maddon said. "He still is. I love Bart.''
These days, everyone loves Colon, no matter what you call him.
Colon will turn 42 later this month, is built like a lineman on a semi-pro football team (5-foot-11, 285 pounds) and finds himself on one of the most freakishly terrific runs in Major League history. He'll enter the Mets' game against Milwaukee at Citi Field on Friday leading the National League with six wins and holding a highly respectable 3.30 ERA.
But the thing that's incredible is that Colon has struck out 40 hitters while walking only one in his 46 1/3 innings pitched.
Since losing the Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman on a 3-1 fastball in the sixth inning on Opening Day, Colon has worked 40 2/3 innings without a walk. During this stretch, he has gone to three-ball counts only 11 times, never more than three times in a game.
What's crazier -- that or that Colon threw 38 consecutive strikes against the Angels in a start in 2012?
By firing one strike after another, start after start, Colon has given himself a new image that has begun to overshadow his ties to Biogenesis and the 50-game suspension he received after testing positive for a synthetic steroid. That occurred later in '12 and cost him a chance to pitch in the postseason with Oakland.
You wondered if that would be the end for Colon, but he signed a one-year deal to return to the A's for 2013 and followed that one up with a two-year, $20 million contract to join the Mets for '14.
General manager Sandy Alderson was searching for a veteran to hold the young staff together while Matt Harvey recovered from Tommy John surgery, and Colon has proved to be exactly that. The Mets have gone 23-15 with him on the mound at the end of a rebuilding period that has them aiming for their first trip to the postseason since 2006.
"The thing about Bart, which nobody talks about enough, is this guy really knows what he's doing out there,'' Maddon said. "He's a strike-thrower; can throw a strike any time he wants, either side of the plate. He's never been a real prominent breaking-ball pitcher. But the fastball command, movement on his fastball, when he knows what he's doing, it does not surprise me at all.''
According to Brooks Baseball, Colon is throwing fastballs (either four-seamers or sinkers) 84.4 percent of the time this season. He's thrown over 80 percent fastballs in each of the past seven seasons, with a high of 89.4 percent in 2012.
But hitters tell you that not many of the fastballs move the same way. Like Greg Maddux, Colon is a master at manipulating the flight of the ball.
Colon is 210-142 with a 3.94 career ERA. He's moved past former Cleveland teammate CC Sabathia to become second among active pitchers in wins (five behind the Giants' Tim Hudson) and ranks third in strikeouts and fourth in innings pitched. Colon's totals would be higher, but his career was interrupted by shoulder injuries, which kept him out of the Major Leagues in 2010.
Perhaps because of the language barrier, perhaps because he has changed teams so frequently -- the Mets are his eighth team -- Colon has always been something of a mystery to fans. He was feared for his velocity when he came up with the Indians as they tried in vain to cash in their abundant talent for a championship -- I once saw him hit 103 mph on the stadium gun -- but he hasn't left a large footprint in terms of his personality.
Maddon says that's a shame.
"I had a great time with him in Anaheim,'' Maddon said. "I'd sit there and watch him [study] videos In Spring Training. He'd sit there and, when he would front-door freeze a lefty [with a pitch that started inside and tailed back over the corner of the plate], he would just giggle. That was the morning session. Sit there and watch that front hip [pitch] come back on a left-handed hitter, and he would just giggle because it was such an effective pitch.
"He knows what he's doing, man. He knows how to pitch. That's why he's still effective. He really knows what he's doing out there. Tremendous command, tremendous feel for what he's doing.''
Maddon couldn't care less that Colon is overweight.
"I know he's big,'' he said. "I guess he's not a very good hitter, but he moves around the mound well. When he throws to first base, his feet are quick. Athletically, he's always been very good for me.''
Because Colon is pitching so well and the Mets have more talent lined up to join a rotation that is built around Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Jon Niese and uber-prospect Noah Syndergaard, Alderson could have a tough decision to make at the end of the season. There will be an ample trade market for a 42-year-old Colon in July, but the Mets would figure to have a time time dealing him if they're still positioned to play big games in September.
Who knows where Colon will be after the season. But as long as he's healthy, throwing strikes and getting outs with his fastball, he'll have a chance to wear a uniform and pitch every fifth day. That seems just right for a pitcher who identified with the hardest-working animal on his farm.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.