LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - He dresses next to Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine in the clubhouse, so it's reasonable to assume he knows the significance of following two of the greatest pitchers of this generation in the Atlanta Braves rotation.
"How I go is going to be pretty much how the team goes," said Kevin Millwood after pitching two perfect innings in his first start of the spring Monday. "Having Glavine and Maddux at the top of the rotation is nice, but the team is looking for me to do some good things and take some pressure off those guys."
The setting lacked ceremony - a chilly, drab afternoon at Disney's Wide World of Sports - but the game's importance wasn't lost on Millwood or the Braves. He needed to kick off his spring with a solid outing, and the team needed some reassurance that he deserved the No. 3 spot in the starting rotation ahead of Jason Marquis.
Millwood easily blew away the six Astros he faced in the Braves' 8-7 win, striking out cleanup hitter Richard Hidalgo with a nasty curve, and allowing the ball to escape the infield just once. His fastball was in the low 90s, and 12 of his 16 pitches were in the strike zone.
"I didn't feel like I had to put forth much effort for the ball to come out good and have something on it," Millwood said. "If I had gone out and not had the control I had or given up a couple of hits it wouldn't have bothered me, but even so, this builds on my confidence. It was everything I was looking for."
The Braves were more concerned with how Millwood's right shoulder responded to the frigid conditions than his pitching line. He missed two and a half months last year with an inflamed labrum, but his shoulder responded to rest and treatment, and he won three of his four September starts to finish with a modest 7-7 record.
"He looks like the old confident Kevin to me," manager Bobby Cox said. "He was off last spring and it was pretty noticeable when he pitched. He looks better right now."
Millwood, who has won just 17 games the last two years after winning 35 games in his first two years as a starter, is throwing as well as he has since winning 18 games and limiting hitters to a major league-low .202 average in 1999. His fastball has good velocity. He is spotting it effectively and even when he misses with his curve, as he did with Hidalgo, it has enough bite to paralyze hitters.
"I got a pretty good reaction from him on it," Millwood said of Hidalgo's whiff. "He seemed to buckle a little bit."
Millwood has always thrown hard; he had 163 strikeouts in 1998 and 205 in '99. But when he didn't command his fastball in 2000, his walk total climbed to a career-high 62 and he allowed 213 hits in 212 innings.
The early returns are encouraging. Millwood says he is experiencing no pain in his shoulder, and the team is encouraged he can handle a 200-inning workload.
"There have been some expectations ever since '99," Millwood said. "But I don't think I have to go out and win 25 games for us to be a good team."
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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