Braves' Millwood proves tough even at tender age From No. 5 shadows, rookie shines on star-studded staff

Sidelight

June 07, 1998|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

Normal circumstances should have bode well for Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina in his return from the disabled list yesterday.

The other starter, Kevin Millwood, was the opposing team's fifth, a rookie who had 19 starts to his name.

Unfortunately for the Orioles, there are worse insults than being the fifth starter for the Atlanta Braves, as Millwood proved during a 10-5 win at Camden Yards, running his record to 8-2.

His performance wasn't spectacular, with four earned runs and four walks and six strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings. And he had the benefit of a four-run lead before he took the mound.

But the 23-year-old was able to wriggle out of some situations Mussina couldn't, an ability that has earned him the respect of his coaches and teammates.

"Kevin's been sharp," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said, "but believe me, he was all over the place at times. But he showed me something by hanging tough."

Millwood first displayed the toughness in the first inning, when after retiring Brady Anderson and Eric Davis, he walked Harold Baines and Rafael Palmeiro. Instead of crumbling, he forced Roberto Alomar into a weak popout.

"That's a sign of a mature pitcher; someone who knows how to win," Braves All-Star left-hander Tom Glavine said. "Knowing how to win a game in which you don't have your best stuff. He's shown the ability to do that already."

His stubbornness in those first three innings is emblematic of his style as a pitcher, as he will somehow find a way to beat you, even if it means resorting to the obvious, such as a steady diet of fastballs against a team that likes seeing them on the menu.

But Millwood says that fastballs are what he does best and he won't abandon his strength.

"They've got a lot of good fastball hitters," Millwood said of the Orioles, "but I'm not going to go away from that just because a guy's a good fastball hitter."

"In other games, he's had more than a good fastball," Atlanta pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. "He's a country boy from North Carolina who likes to go one-on-one."

Apparently, the strategy worked.

While noting that Millwood couldn't get many of his breaking pitches over the plate, Davis acknowledged that "we had troubles seeing him. It was a day game, so it was tough to see."

The Braves saw a bit of him during the last part of 1997 as he went 5-3 with 4.03 ERA in 12 appearances, including a two-hit performance against the Philadelphia Phillies on Sept. 23.

He followed up with a strong spring performance, which earned him a starting role. It didn't take long for him to affirm the Braves' decision, as he pitched a complete-game one-hit shutout against Pittsburgh on April 14.

He's willing to admit that part of his success can be traced to the Atlanta offense, which leads the National League in batting average and home runs.

In his last six starts, the Braves have averaged nearly eight runs, something that lets him relax more than the average pitcher.

"It gives you the confidence to do just about anything," Millwood said. "You don't have to worry about a solo home run tying the game; even a two-run home run wouldn't break your back."

But Mazzone said Millwood is a valuable talent, strong offense or not.

"If you're a young pitcher and going 8-2 on a team where the standards are extremely high, you're doing good," Mazzone said. "He has the knack for keeping us in the game, regardless of the stuff he has on a particular night."

Pub Date: 6/07/98

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