LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Nobody had to see the two scoreless innings Derek Lowe threw Monday to know that he returns to the mound with the same confidence he had last September.
It was what he didn’t do in a 13-3 win over the Astros in his first outing of spring training that gave it away.
Lowe didn’t throw a single breaking ball to the Astros, the pitch he says made the biggest difference in his turnaround late last season, when he went 5-0 with a 1.17 ERA in September.
On the suggestion of his trainer, Lowe decided to table his breaking ball for the first two weeks of camp, to help his stamina in the long run as he approaches his 37th birthday in June. But now he knows the breaking pitch will still be there.
“You feel like as long as you didn’t make any changes, you should be able to pick up where you left off,” Lowe said. “That in and of itself gives you confidence because you know you just did it four months ago.”
Lowe said he threw some breaking pitches as he started to build up his arm strength in the offseason but when he arrived at Braves camp, he stopped, knowing he’d be throwing live batting practice every other day.
On Monday, he threw strictly fastballs – both two and four-seam – and his change-up in the 27 pitches he threw, including 16 for strikes. He gave up back-to-back singles to start the game but retired the next five hitters, including three on groundballs.
“The sinker was working,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “The secondary pitches, they’ll come.”
In his next two starts, Lowe plans to mix in a few cut-fastballs and his curveball, but he won’t use his full repertoire until his last two outings of spring. Unlike past years when Lowe was eager to refine all his pitches from the start of spring, he’s taking it slow.
“You don’t need to be torquing your arm this early, throwing your breaking stuff,” Lowe said. “I’ve always gone into camp evaluating your outings by how the results were; this year I have more of a plan for spring training.”
This time last year he was desperate to see results from a host of adjustments he’d made over the winter. He’d won 15 games in 2009 but lost 10, with a career-high ERA of 4.67. He was constantly watching video and changing his mechanics.
This past offseason at home in Fort Myers, Fla. Lowe said he watched video a grand total of once, “to make sure we were doing the same thing and we were.”
Lowe missed the first start of his 14-year career early last September with elbow inflammation from a bone chip, but he said his elbow is fine now. He said this change wasn’t geared toward a specific injury but the long haul.
“I don’t see myself just trying to play out these next two years and retiring to the golf course,” Lowe said. “I plan on playing for a long time. As you go, you have to be smarter.”
The majority of the first two years of his four-year $60 million contract with the Braves has been marred by inconsistency and trade talk. But last September, Lowe locked into form. After skipping that start, he won his last five starts of the season to win NL pitcher of the month. He allowed only four earned runs in 30 2/3 innings, struck out 29 and walked only three.
Just weeks after some wondered if he’d even make a three-man rotation in the postseason, Lowe became the ace. He started Game 1 in the Division Series against the Giants. He lost both of his starts in the series but allowed only three earned runs in 11 2/3 innings total, giving the Braves a chance to win each time.
The difference, he said, was one pitch.
“My breaking ball was everything,” Lowe said. “…It was sharper; it was more consistent. I was able to throw it to both sides of the plate, which you should be able to do at this level, but I was so inconsistent with it.”
Lowe was the Braves’ Opening Day starter each of the last two years. There’s a chance he could again this year. But it’s how he ended last year that has made all the difference to him. He got to pitch in the postseason and get back to being the kind of pitcher he expects.
“You feel better coming in the clubhouse,” Lowe said. “After a while (last year) you probably think, ‘We’ve got two more years of this stuff? Holy smokes,’ instead of saying now he’s back to where he should be.”