LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- When the Braves gave Derek Lowe a four-year, $60 million contract before the start of the 2009 season, they obviously thought he was capable of proving effective enough to serve as their Opening Day starter on an annual basis.
During the two seasons that have followed, they have primarily seen him prove effective and disappointing. But just when it seemed disappointment was reaching its peak late last season, Lowe enjoyed a dominant run that carried him through September in perfect fashion and allowed him to return to Spring Training this year filled with confidence.
Lowe will attempt to carry this confidence to the mound Thursday afternoon, when he opposes the Nationals in what will be his third consecutive Opening Day start for the Braves.
"I'm excited more than ever this year because of the way I ended last year and the way the spring has gone," Lowe said. "It's encouraging knowing you're doing the same things you were able to do at the end of last year. You're able to go into the game with more confidence than I've had, definitely since I've been here. It's quite the honor and I look forward to it."
After Lowe went 11-12 with a 4.53 ERA in his first 28 starts last year, it looked like the Braves might attempt to trade him like they had the previous offseason.
But when Lowe went 5-0 with a 1.17 ERA in September and then produced two strong postseason starts, there was reason to optimistically look at the final two years of his contract.
Lowe's resurgence came after he met with pitching coach Roger McDowell before his Sept. 13 start against the Nationals. They talked about taking a new approach and somewhere within their meeting the veteran sinkerballer relocated the slider he had been without for more than a year.
A few hours later Lowe celebrated a career-high 12 strikeouts and a rare win over the Nationals. He had gone 1-6 with a 5.44 ERA in his previous nine starts against them, but in his two September starts against them, he combined to work 13 scoreless innings.
"I'm confident with my stuff going into the season and I think that's the most important thing," Lowe said. "You don't want to go into the season doubting what you've been working on."
This is actually the sixth time in the past seven years that Lowe has made an Opening Day start. He pitched three straight season openers for the Dodgers from 2005-07.
Lowe went 0-3 with an 8.44 ERA in his three Opening Day starts with the Dodgers. He had a strong outing in 2005, limiting the Giants to two earned runs in seven innings. But the following year, while matching up against Tim Hudson and the Braves, he allowed seven earned runs in just five innings.
While winning both of his Opening Day starts with the Braves, Lowe has proven to be both dominant and fortunate. He limited the defending World Series champion Phillies to two hits over eight scoreless innings in front of a raucous Philadelphia crowd in 2009. Last year, he surrendered the Cubs five earned runs in six innings and came out on the right side of a 16-5 win.
"Derek was great at the end of last year and he's been great throughout Spring Training," Braves catcher Brian McCann said. "We're all excited to see what he will do this year."
Lowe isn't making any guarantees as he enters his 14th Major League season. But courtesy of the adjustments he made late last year, he is confident that he will avoid the long stretches of disappointment that filled his first two seasons in Atlanta.
"It's not to say I'm not going to have bumps in the road," Lowe said. "I'm not naïve enough to think I'm going to have a 1.1-something ERA for six months. I'd love to. You're going to have bumps in the road. It's just that I don't think it's going to be so drastic."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.