Lowe hopes opener sets off rebound

Lowe hopes opener sets off rebound

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Derek Lowe recognizes that it will be an honor to make a second consecutive Opening Day start for the Braves. But as the veteran sinkerballer attempts to separate himself from last year's frustrations, he's more excited about recent indications that his offseason work has created hope for a brighter future.

"This is the best that I've thrown in a long time," Lowe said before Monday morning's workout at ESPN's Wide World of Sports complex. "Is that going to translate into success? I hope. I think I have given myself a far better chance to have success this year than I have in years past."

When the Braves announced Sunday that Lowe will start their Opening Day matinee against the Cubs on April 5 at Turner Field, they distanced themselves from the trade talks that surrounded the right-hander just two months ago and provided a vote of confidence to this 36-year-old hurler, who struggled at the end of last year's 15-win season.

But instead of accepting the belief that the Braves are -- in his words -- "just throwing me a bone," Lowe understands this Opening Day assignment is also a product of the fact that the club is attempting to manage the workloads that Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens will experience throughout the season.

"At the end of the day, none of us went in there and lobbied or anything," Lowe said in reference to the Opening Day assignment. "They made a decision that is best for everybody. I think our situation is unique because we have so many good pitchers."

While planning for the makeup of their rotation, the Braves opted to take advantage of the fact that the schedule offers them the chance to provide Hudson an extra day of rest before each of his first three starts of the regular season. The 34-year-old Hudson made seven September starts after returning from Tommy John surgery last year and has said numerous times that he has regained all of his arm strength.

But Hudson still appreciates the makeup of these rotation plans, which have been set with the mindset that Jurrjens and Hanson would get more opportunities to pitch with an extra day of rest during the middle portion of the season.

While the 24-year-old Jurrjens has compiled 403 1/3 innings in his first two Major League seasons, the 23-year-old Hanson combined for 197 innings with Triple-A Gwinnett and Atlanta last year.

"Tommy and J.J. have put together a workload that they're probably not used to yet," Hudson said. "I think it's smarter to take it easier on them during the second half of the year this year and allow some of the old guys to pick up some of that workload."

Jurrjens, who has battled some slight right shoulder discomfort during the early days of camp, is scheduled to make his season debut on April 7 against the Cubs. Hanson will start the following day in the series finale, and Hudson will be on the mound when the Braves open a three-game series in San Francisco on April 9.

"I feel awesome," Hudson said. "It's going to be pretty cool pitching later in the rotation. I'm used to squaring off against some guys that I don't feel like I can give up many runs against."

While Hudson will seemingly be spared a matchup against two-time National League Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, Lowe's Opening Day assignment will likely pit him against Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano. In the process, he'll attempt to prove to be just as successful as he was last year, when he limited the then-defending champion Phillies to just two hits in eight innings and led the Braves to a season-opening victory.

This will be Lowe's fifth Opening Day start in the past six seasons. During the three Opening Day assignments he had with the Dodgers, he was 0-3 with an 8.44 ERA.

"I don't go into this game any different than the previous four years," Lowe said. "Clearly, pitching at home makes it a little more exciting. Confidence-wise, it's going to be the same as any other year or any other start."

While this will be just one of the 34 or 35 starts the always-durable Lowe plans to make this year, it will also be the beginning of a journey that he hopes has a more satisfying conclusion than last year's. On the way to matching Javier Vazquez's team-high 15 victories, Lowe posted a 5.59 ERA in his final 21 starts and a 6.65 ERA in his final nine starts.

During the offseason, Lowe dealt with the fact that the Braves attempted to trade him less than one year after he had signed a four-year, $60 million contract. But more importantly, he diligently worked to fix the mechanical flaws that haunted him down the stretch.

Over the past two weeks, Lowe has been encouraged by the fact that his teammates and coaches have confirmed his belief that the righty's offseason work allowed him to improve the quality of his pitches and once again find consistent location with those pitches.

"It's encouraging that the people that catch you or the coaches that have come up and said, 'I definitely see a noticeable difference,'" Lowe said. "It's not that you're looking for praise. You're just looking for confirmation that what you did has worked."

Instead of focusing on the Opening Day assignment, Lowe will spend the next month allowing opposing hitters the chance to confirm that he will be able to realize the fruits of his offseason labor. Thus, for now, he's placing his focus on his Grapefruit League season debut, which will come Friday against the Nationals.

"You can't start looking a month down the line, thinking, 'I'm already going to pitch on Opening Day' and kind of coast through Spring Training," Lowe said. "That's the last thing that you want to do. You want to go into the season with good momentum."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.