Lowe set to take ball on Opening Day
Braves skipper Cox shows confidence in right-hander
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As Braves manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Roger McDowell mapped out their pitching plans for the regular season, they provided further indication that they truly believe Jair Jurrjens is healthy and also gave Derek Lowe a vote of confidence.
Coming off a disappointing conclusion to the 2010 season and just a little more than two months removed from thoughts that he might be traded, Lowe has been informed that he will serve as the Braves Opening Day starter for a second consecutive season.
Lowe will be on the mound on April 5, when the Braves host the Cubs in an Opening Day matinee at Turner Field. Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson will start the other two games against the Cubs that week and Tim Hudson will make his regular-season debut in San Francisco on April 9.
"There's a lot of first-game jitters and excitement," Cox said. "You've got to have the right makeup to handle all of that. [Lowe] can pitch big games."
This will be the fifth time in the past six seasons that Lowe makes an Opening Day start. During the three Opening Day assignments he had with the Dodgers, he went 0-3 with an 8.44 ERA. But the 36-year-old sinkerballer's lone experience with the Braves proved much more memorable.
When Lowe tossed eight scoreless innings and limited the defending world champion Phillies to just two hits during the Braves' Opening Day victory last year, he propelled himself toward a 15-win season that was tainted when he posted a 6.65 ERA in his final nine starts.
This late-season swoon led the Braves to contemplate trading Lowe less than a year after he had signed a four-year, $60 million contract. But when they were unable to find any desirable suitors, they instead opted to create financial flexibility by trading Javier Vazquez.
"It's something that has come and gone," Lowe said when he arrived in camp and was asked if he was still bothered by the fact that the club had attempted to trade him.
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With Hanson, Jurrjens and Hudson also arguably in possession of the credentials that could have gained them this Opening Day start, Cox once again took advantage of the opportunity to show Lowe that he still supports and believes in his capabilities.
"He was our winningest pitcher," Cox said, alluding to the fact that Lowe's 15 victories matched Vazquez for the team lead last year.
The decision to start Hudson during the fourth game of the season was based on the makeup of the schedule. With the current arrangement of this rotation, the 34-year-old right-hander would have the opportunity to pitch with at least one day of extra rest before each of his first three regular-season starts.
Hudson made seven starts after returning from Tommy John surgery last year and has provided every indication that he is healthy. But provided the opportunity, the Braves are planning to take advantage of the chance to give him extra rest during the early portion of the regular season.
"We're trying to keep him strong and ready for the stretch run, so that we can run him out there as often as we can and give Hanson and Jurrjens a chance to be the guys that get the extra days in the second half," Cox said.
Since arriving in camp with some discomfort created by inflammation around his right shoulder, Jurrjens has realized steady progress and is slated to begin throwing off a mound again on Monday. This puts him in position to compile the exhibition season innings necessary to be ready for his April 7 start against the Cubs.
But the Braves also seem to be mindful of the fact that the 24-year-old Jurrjens has combined for 403 1/3 innings the past two seasons. Before completing 188 1/3 innings in 2008, he had never worked more than 143 1/3 innings in a professional season.
Hanson, the club's prized 23-year-old right-hander, combined for 194 innings with Triple-A Gwinnett and Atlanta last year. He had never completed more than 138 innings during the traditional portion of any of his previous professional seasons.
Cox acknowledged that there is certainly a chance that Mother Nature or health-related issues could alter the plan to provide Hanson and Jurrjens the opportunity to gain extra days of rest later in the season.
"Nobody is too smart," Cox said. "We just thought if we could go that way, it would be advantageous. Sometimes, your best plans don't work."
Providing Lowe the opportunity to pitch on regular rest as often as possible, the Braves will take advantage of an off-day during the regular season's first week and bring him back to start the April 10 game against the Giants. Serving as the club's fifth starter, Kenshin Kawakami will make his first regular season start during the regular season's sixth game -- the April 11 series finale in San Francisco.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.