When Derek Lowe returns to Turner Field, he will be armed with the confidence that he lacked when he last visited this stadium in October. Having spent the offseason overhauling the mechanics of his delivery, the veteran right-hander is determined not to reintroduce himself to last year's frustrations.
"If I would have pitched like I did at the end of last year, I would have been in the bullpen at some point this year," Lowe said.
Instead of preparing himself for a bullpen role, Lowe now finds himself preparing for his fourth Opening Day assignment in the past five years. The 36-year-old sinkerballer will be on the mound at Turner Field on Monday afternoon, when the Braves open the upcoming season against the Cubs.
"Any time you can open up the season at home, I think it makes it that much more exciting," Lowe said. "The biggest thing about Opening Day is how fast you can settle down because I don't care whether it's your first start, first relief appearance or first at-bat, there are going to be nerves and excitement there."
Much of the afternoon's excitement will center around the much-anticipated Major League debut of Jason Heyward, who is widely regarded as the game's finest prospect. The 20-year-old phenom, who was giving nightmares to high school pitchers in suburban Atlanta just three years ago, spent the past month proving he is ready to begin his reign as the Braves right fielder.
Heyward has routinely drawn praise from Braves manager Bobby Cox, who will be enjoying the final Opening Day of his highly-successful managerial career.
"Everybody has been impressed with what they've seen from Heyward so far and now we're all looking forward to seeing what he can do during the season," Braves All-Star catcher Brian McCann said. "He has a chance to be really special."
With Heyward and the power that new first baseman Troy Glaus can generate in the cleanup spot, Lowe enters this season backed by an offense that is seemingly better than the one that supported him during his 15-win season last year.
While Lowe was able to match Javier Vazquez for the team-high wins total, he found himself frustrated by the fact that he compiled a 5.59 ERA in his final 21 starts. Things got even worse when he posted a 6.65 ERA and allowed opponents a .413 on-base percentage in his final nine outings.
Lowe spent the offseason working on his mechanics to rid himself of the bad habits that were on display last year. More importantly, he never tinkered with these adjustments during Spring Training. The 4.50 ERA he compiled in the Grapefruit League was inflated by his outing on March 10, when he developed a blister on his toe after three pitches and ended up allowing three earned runs in just one inning to the Mets.
"The thing I wanted to do was to be able to throw quality strikes," Lowe said. "It was as successful as I hoped it would be. Now you are at a point where you don't have to worry about any mechanical situations. You can just go out there and pitch.
"I think all I can ask for is to feel ready. Nobody wants to go into a season after a bad spring. Success definitely breeds confidence. If you have a poor spring, you can't just flip the switch and expect to be able to find it all of the sudden."
As he prepares to face the Cubs, Lowe is hoping this Opening Day assignment proves to be as memorable as last year's. During his first start as a Brave, he opened the 2009 season by limiting the defending World Series champion Phillies to just two hits over eight scoreless innings.
While providing this performance in front of Philadelphia's rabid fans, Lowe distanced himself from the fact that he had gone 0-3 with an 8.44 ERA in the only other three Opening Day starts he had ever made. In the process, he showed some of the determination that was on display when he proved so valuable to the Red Sox on their memorable run to the World Series title in 2004.
"You've got to have the right makeup to handle those kinds of situations," Cox said. "Derek is a guy who can pitch in big games."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.