Lake Buena Vista, Fla. – Ten weeks after the Braves gave up on trading Derek Lowe, manager Bobby Cox named him the opening day starter.
The surprising announcement that Lowe would start the April 5 opener at Turner Field against the Cubs came Sunday, weeks before Cox has named opening day starters in previous years.
“I wanted to do a good job with the reporters in my last year,” quipped Cox, who intends to retire after the 2010 season.
Jair Jurrjens’ sore shoulder and a plan to find extra rest for Tim Hudson in the early season played in the decision. It was also a vote of confidence in Lowe, the focus of trade rumors this winter.
Lowe left Champion Stadium before Cox made the announcement after Sunday’s workout.
“He was our winningest pitcher,” Cox said of the decision to start the 36-year-old right-hander. “Last year against Philadelphia [opening day] he pitched eight shutout innings and gave up two hits. And he’s a veteran.”
Lowe went 15-10 in the first season of a four-year, $60 million contract, but his 4.67 ERA was far and away the highest among regular Braves starters. His .301 opponents’ batting average tied for second-worst among National League starters.
The Braves will start Jurrjens in the second game April 7 against Chicago, after an April 6 off day that’s there in case of an opening-day rainout.
Tommy Hanson is to start the April 8 series finale against the Cubs, and Hudson will make his season debut April 9 at San Francisco.
The Braves plan to bring back Lowe on regular rest for Game 5 at San Francisco before Kenshin Kawakami makes his first start April 11 against the Giants in the sixth game.
Jurrjens was 14-10 with a staff-best 2.60 ERA last season, but has been slowed this spring by shoulder inflammation. He’s scheduled to throw his first bullpen session Monday and could pitch in a game next week.
Cox indicated if Jurrjens were healthy, he would have been considered for the opening day start. “But I like Lowe right now,” Cox said. “We think we match up with anybody, that [the order] doesn’t really matter.”
Hudson went 2-1 with a 3.67 ERA in seven late-season starts after returning from a year-long recovery for ligament-transplant elbow surgery. Cox said Hudson would get an extra day’s rest before his last two spring starts and his first two starts in the season.
“We’re trying to take care of Hudson in the first part of the season, to keep him strong and ready for the stretch drive,” Cox said. “And we can give Hanson and Jurrjens more days [rest] in the second half. That’s the theory. That’s the madness behind it.”
Cox said the plan was tentative and might be adjusted if Jurrjens has any setbacks in recovery from shoulder inflammation. For now, the Braves believe Jurrjens has plenty of time to get ready for the regular season.
This will be the fifth opening-day start in six years for Lowe, who was charged with two hits and no walks in eight scoreless innings of a 4-1 win at Philadelphia. He had been 0-3 with an 8.44 ERA in three previous opening-day starts.
“There’s an honor to it,” Cox said of starting opening day. “Lot of first game jitters, excitement. You’ve got to have the right makeup to handle that. He can pitch big games, that’s for sure.”
The Braves sought to trade a starter this winter to open a spot and free some payroll after signing Hudson to a three-year extension. But they they couldn’t find any trade partner without the Braves agreeing to eat a large portion of the $45 million he’s owed.
They traded Javier Vazquez instead, after he went 15-10 with a 2.87 ERA and finished fourth in the Cy Young Award balloting. Vazquez had one year at $11.5 million left on his contract.