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Millwood Part of Braves Big 3

March 15, 2000

KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) _ Kevin Millwood doesn’t feel like part of the Big Three.

His locker at the Atlanta Braves spring training complex is on the other side of the room, away from all the commotion that surrounds Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. Millwood likes it that way.

``I slip in and slip out without anyone noticing,″ he said, grinning through his goatee.

Despite winning 35 games the past two years, Millwood managed to remain somewhat anonymous, the fourth starter in a rotation that included three guys with seven Cy Youngs between them.

But that’s about to change.

Smoltz’s long-suffering right elbow finally gave out in the early days of spring training; he’s done for the season. Clearly, it’s time for Millwood to take his place among a revamped Big Three, even if he’s a bit reluctant to put himself in the same class with Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz.

``I still have a long ways to go,″ Millwood said. ``I feel like I’ve made a place for myself. I’ve pitched well enough to be a considered a quality starter. But I don’t consider myself with those guys. That still seems a little out of reach to me.″

Those feelings, according to Glavine, are typical of any young player trying to find his niche on a star-studded team that has been to the World Series five times in 10 years. Millwood only turned 25 in December.

``We all go through that at some point in time,″ Glavine said. ``When success first happens, you’re a little reluctant to put yourself in that category.

``But we’ve always felt like he’s a part of us. We’ve always tried to include him in everything. It’s different with him than some of the other guys who’ve pitched with us. He’s not intimidated by any of that stuff.″

Indeed, Millwood’s stoic demeanor makes him a perfect fit for the businesslike Braves. He speaks in a deep, North Carolina drawl, never revealing any hint of anguish or frustration.

This spring, when the Braves renewed him to a one-year contract at $420,000 _ well below market value and taking advantage of the fact he wasn’t eligible for arbitration _ general manager John Schuerholz made a point to pull Millwood aside in the clubhouse, making sure there were no hard feelings.

There weren’t.

``I’m fine with it,″ Millwood said. ``I’m still making more money than most people in this country.″

Salaries aside, there seemed to be a changing of the guard in the Braves rotation last season.

Maddux’s ERA climbed to its highest level in more than a decade, Glavine endured a subpar season and Smoltz was on the disabled list twice. Millwood, on the other hand, went 18-7 with a 2.68 ERA, second-best in the National League. Opposing hitters batted .202 against him, lowest in the majors.

``He definitely made people quit talking about the Big Three,″ Glavine said. ``He wasn’t just a sidebar to the three of us anymore.″

Millwood was the Braves’ most effective starter in a thrilling regular-season race with the New York Mets. In the opening round of the playoffs against Houston, he threw the first complete-game one-hitter in the postseason since 1967, then earned a save in the next game. He picked up another win in the NL championship series over the Mets.

``It gives you a lot of confidence,″ said Millwood, whose postseason run ended when the Yankees knocked him out in the third inning of his only World Series start. ``I was put in some big-time situations and was able to get the win for my team.″

Now, with Smoltz gone for the season, Millwood and his teammates will have to do even more. He feels they are up to the task after reaching the World Series last year without Andres Galarraga, Javy Lopez and Kerry Ligtenberg.

``We know we can do it without our big guns,″ Millwood said. ``I think that gives us a little confidence. Maybe there’s a sense that we did it once, we can do it again.″

As for Millwood, bigger and better things are expected. He already is being touted by several publications as the NL’s leading Cy Young contender after finishing third in the balloting a year ago behind Randy Johnson and Mike Hampton.

``That would be fine with me,″ Millwood said, chuckling. ``But I’m not looking that far ahead. I’m trying to get prepared for the season. If everything goes well, I’ll have a chance. But it’s not something I worry about or have hanging over my head.″

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