Millwood carries Braves to victory in Game 2Posted: Friday October 04, 2002 1:30 AM
Updated: Friday October 04, 2002 8:46 AM
By Albert Chen, Sports Illustrated
ATLANTA -- He had been in this very position before, but for Kevin Millwood, it feels like a lifetime ago.
After a loss in Game 1 of the 1999 Division Series to the Astros, the Braves turned to their best pitcher that season in a desperate situation. Not Greg Maddux, not Tom Glavine, not John Smoltz, but to Millwood, on the heels of a Cy Young caliber season (he finished third in voting).
Millwood, then 25, turned in a masterpiece, throwing the fifth one-hitter in postseason history, and the Braves went on to win the next three games of the series and advance to the NLCS.
Three years later, the Braves, off another Game 1 failure, once again turned to Millwood for rescue. In Game 2, Millwood, who this season was quietly the Braves' most dominant starter, once again emphatically put his Braves back on track, tossing six innings, giving up two runs on three hits and striking out seven batters.
"He was big time and clutch tonight," says pitching coach Leo Mazzone "I could tell from the way he was warming up that he was very emotionally charged."
Millwood's resurrection has been both stunning and sudden given that his career only a year ago seemed as dead as Freddie Prinze Jr.'s. Following that masterful 1999 season, during which Millwood went 18-7 with a 2.68 ERA, batters adjusted to Millwood's limited pitching repertoire. He fell back to the pack, going 10-13 with a 4.66 ERA, as well as a playoff dud against the Cardinals in Game 3 of the 2000 Division Series. In 2001, he suffered a shoulder injury and went 7-7 with another plus-4.00 ERA and wasn't even on the roster for the Division Series. This past winter, the Braves were actively shopping Millwood around. Millwood had hit rock bottom and was depressed, taking solace only in his infant son, Kevin Jr. (Millwood has five photos of Kevin Jr. pasted up on his locker.)
During this past offseason, Millwood went to rehab his shoulder five times a week, but still 2002 began unceremoniously. When he was shelled by the Rockies on May 18, his record was 2-5 with a 4.92 ERA. But all the while, Millwood was toiling to better his game, developing more weapons on the mound. He began using his slider more frequently and started challenging hitters inside with his fastball.
With the help of Maddux, his mentor, Millwood this spring developed a two-seam fastball to complement his four-seamer. Since that game against the Rockies, Millwood has been nearly untouchable, going 16-3 with a 2.64 ERA.
"We've had different guys on this ballclub carry this team, and Kevin has carried his fair share this year," closer John Smoltz said. "He's learning how to pitch and he's pitching with power. This time of year you need that. He's got command of his fastball right now, and that's the key to Kevin Millwood."
Thursday night the revived Millwood was showcased, as he displayed his new array of pitches and, to the delight of the 47,167 at Turner Field, shut down Barry Bonds in two at-bats. In the second-inning, Millwood smoked a third-strike heater past a whiffing Bonds that set the tone for the game --- and sent the crowd into a frenzy.
"This is as hard as I've ever thrown consistently," says Millwood. "Tonight was a do-or-die game, and I was going to give it all I could."
With Glavine struggling, Millwood's importance to this team becomes tantamount. Perhaps Maddux's injury was a blessing in disguise for the Braves; Millwood is now slated to pitch in Game 5 if it's necessary. Right now, he looks exactly like the guy the Braves want to depend on with everything at stake.