LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - To Kevin Millwood, it mattered little that there was no formal workout Thursday morning on the immaculate field at Disney's Wide World of Sports.
Just lacing up his spikes, grabbing his glove, and playing a game of catch without worrying about his troublesome shoulder was enough to bring a smile to his face.
The serious business of preparing the Atlanta Braves for opening day begins this morning when pitchers and catchers have their first workout. Millwood is ready. He started putting his shoulder to the test during "Camp Leo," pitching coach Leo Mazzone's throwing program in advance of spring training.
"This is as good as my arm has felt in a long time," he said. "I feel strong and the ball feels like it's coming out easily. It's actually kind of fun right now."
Millwood, who missed two and a half months last season with a sore shoulder, is bigger and stronger. With his shoulder woes apparently behind him during the season's final five weeks, he gave the team a preview of what it can expect from him, winning three of four decisions and allowing more than three earned runs in just two of six starts.
"Last year was such a struggle because I was hurt and trying to find different ways to throw and not have it hurt," said Millwood, 27, who is beginning his fifth year in the big leagues. "Now I don't have to worry about those kinds of things."
Millwood, who made just seven starts before his shoulder forced him onto the disabled list, endorsed the idea that he can become a consistent winner again.
"I think I can get back to where I was in '99," he said. "I know I can win here. I've done it before, and I have some confidence working after the end of last year."
Millwood, who described a winter regimen that included exercises to strengthen his shoulder, is expected to be the No. 3 starter. However, a pitcher who is 17-20 in the two years since winning 18 games in 1999 will have to convince skeptics he's healthy. But he left little doubt that he considers his shoulder pain a thing of the past.
"As long as I maintain the strength in my shoulder, I don't think I'll have any problems at all," he said.
Millwood said he understands why the team's fans might question a rotation that includes a second-year pitcher (Jason Marquis), a 19-game loser (Albie Lopez) and a pitcher recovering from shoulder soreness.
"I think there's a lot of really good potential there," Millwood said. "Jason knowing he's going to pitch every fifth day is going to help him a lot, and with his work ethic and preparation, he can do really good things. And with the pressure off Lopez, he doesn't have to worry about be the No. 1 guy, and he's going to be learning a lot being around (Greg) Maddux and (Tom) Glavine."
Reach Bill Zack at firstname.lastname@example.org