Team leader Millwood aims to set tone

Millwood aims to set tone

He is the guy who collects the tips for the clubhouse guys, takes bullpen catcher Josh Frasier out to dinner and is there to talk to the media when the Rangers unveil their new team airplane.

He goes to the schools, hospitals, banquets and other events whenever the Rangers need him.

Michael Young says, "I love playing behind Milly" and Gerald Laird said, "Kevin Millwood is an awesome teammate." Said Laird, "It's just the way he is, an all-around great guy on and off the field. When he's on the field, he battles. He's a gamer. Everybody in this clubhouse has all the respect in the world for him."

Yes, Millwood does mean that much to the Rangers as a leader on the team. But he means much more as their No. 1 starter. And for the third straight year, Millwood will be on the mound for the Rangers on Opening Day, against the Mariners on Monday at Safeco Field.

The No. 1 starter on any team carries responsibility, and that may be especially true on a team that desperately needs better performance from its starting rotation. The Rangers want to contend this year, they know they'll only be as good as their starting rotation and they need Millwood to lead the staff.

"He's the most important guy we have, just being at the top of the rotation," Laird said. "The rest of the guys look up to him and are driven by what he's doing."

The Rangers need Millwood to be much better than he was in 2007, when he went 10-14 with a career-high 5.16 ERA. It's only the third time in 11 Major League seasons that he finished with a losing record.

"Nobody is going to put more pressure on myself than I can," Millwood said. "Obviously I need to do more than last year, give this team more innings and more quality starts. I feel like I put a lot of hard work to get ready for this season and I want to see it pay off."

The Rangers speak of Millwood being a man on a mission, but coming off a year when little went right has a tendency to put a pitcher in that frame of mind.

"It motivated me this winter," Millwood said. "Now that it's over, I just need to help us win this year. It has nothing to do with last year."

Millwood had a hamstring problem in Spring Training and that held him back early in the Cactus League. But it did not have an effect on his arm and the Rangers still liked what they saw. He was 16-12 with a 4.52 ERA for them in 2006, and the Rangers speak with conviction that he'll be at that level or higher in 2008.

"The way he's throwing right now, he'll have a great year," pitching coach Mark Connor said. "If he stays healthy, he'll have a great year. I'm not talking about wins. I'm talking about the way he's pitching -- he'll give us innings and keep us in the game. He's throwing more quality pitches now than I've ever seen. As well as he pitched two years ago, I think he's capable of pitching even better."

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.