ATLANTA -- Last season Kevin Millwood won seven games, his worst total since joining the Atlanta Braves rotation in 1998.
This spring he had the sort of numbers -- 25 hits in 19 innings and a 5.21 ERA -- that wouldn't have won him a job if he wasn't already penciled in as the No. 3 starter.
But Millwood, who will start tonight against the Philadelphia Phillies, has an answer for those inclined to ridicule him as the rotation's weak link.
"I'm really not worried about what people expect from me," he said. "All I worry about is getting prepared for the Phillies. I feel I can win a lot of games this year."
The Braves, who lost 12 wins and 219 1/3 innings when John Burkett walked this winter, expect Millwood to regain his footing on a track record that seemed to be leading toward superstardom when he won 35 games in his first two full seasons as a starter.
Pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who has tinkered with Millwood this spring like a weekend mechanic tuning his sports car, has backed off his hands-on approach.
"Sometimes you try and change too much," Mazzone said. "I told him to just be himself and pitch the way he wants to pitch. Trying to conventionalize him too much is a mistake."
In other words, making Millwood over in the image of, say, John Smoltz, hasn't worked. As Millwood admits, "I don't have Greg Maddux's changeup or John Smoltz's slider."
Mazzone acknowledged that Millwood will probably make a career of pitching with runners on base. In two of his last three full seasons, the righthander has allowed more hits than innings pitched. But he also has the weapons, principally a fastball that tops out in the mid-90s, that resulted in an average of 5.5 strikeouts per start during that stretch.
Millwood, who gave up a first-inning run, then allowed just one other unearned run over the next three innings in last Friday's final spring warmup against the Orioles, thinks he's ready for a big season. He's completely recovered from last year's inflamed labrum that landed him on the disabled list from May 7 to July 20, and he's developed a hybrid changeup that should take the heat off his fastball.
Millwood has toyed with a changeup in the past, experimenting with Maddux's grip and Tom Glavine's circle change, without finding one that felt comfortable. He's settled on a variation of Glavine's changeup, completing an arsenal of four pitches that also includes a curve and slider.
"I don't know how much (the changeup) will be talked about, but it's all mine," Millwood said. "I have good arm speed with this one and I can locate it well. It gives me something to show hitters that's off-speed."
Millwood, 27, had a spring that reinforced the notion that he's not ready yet to replace either Maddux or Glavine at the head of the rotation. But he suggests his spring numbers are misleading and the true indicator of where he stands will come tonight and throughout the season.
"I accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish this spring," Millwood said. "I wanted to come out of it healthy foremost and I did. I worked on my pitches and got my innings in to build my arm strength. Everything I wanted to do, I did, and it turned out good.
"I feel I'm ready to go out and make 35 starts and pitch 200 innings."
Tall order? Judging by his recent track record, perhaps so, but Millwood, an 11th-round pick in the 1993 draft, has had to establish his credentials at every level.
"Kevin doesn't have to carry any burdens of replacing Burkett or being the key to the rotation," Mazzone said. "He's just one part of it. I told Kevin and Jason (Marquis) and Albie (Lopez) that if they each pitch 220 innings, we'll be in good shape, and I wasn't joking."
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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