VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Derek Lowe is entering his free-agency year and he's been here before. It was four years ago, and he remembers it well.

"It was," he said, "awful."

Not the postseason. Pitching the clinching wins in the American League Division Series, American League Championship Series and World Series for the Red Sox was an unprecedented cool sweep. But the rest of the season was a mess, and Lowe is cautiously optimistic that it won't happen again.

"You learn from all of the mistakes in your life, and I learned from that," said Lowe, 34. "The pressure I put on myself, trying to have a career year ... it just didn't work. The longer you play, the more you realize that the 100 percent goal should be to win. But I was about to get my first big contract and I tried so hard -- too hard.

"What will make this year different is that I've pretty much established my value. My track record speaks for itself. I never want to be the guy who plays for the money. I'm here to win and I'm excited with the changes we've made. For the first time, it seems like management and the front office are all on the same page. Last year was a failure, and we can't allow that to happen again."

Nor, said Lowe, can he afford a repeat of his last walk year, when he went 14-12 for the Red Sox with an ERA that soared to 5.42.

"I wanted to re-sign with Boston bad, to a fault," he said. "That was the only place I wanted to play. We talked about an extension in the spring, but nothing came of it. Then I put so much pressure on myself. Every game that didn't go right, I thought I was blowing it and they wouldn't want to bring me back. It snowballed into an awful season. People remember the postseason, which was a good thing, because the rest of the year was a battle."

Despite pitching the momentous clinching victory in the 2004 World Series, Lowe found the Red Sox disinterested in bringing him back. He accepted a four-year, $36 million contract from then-Dodgers general manager Paul DePodesta and has been the club's Opening Day starter the past three years. His Dodgers ERA is a solid 3.70, but he's 40-37 with two losing seasons.

Lowe had a 12-14 mark and 3.88 ERA last year, which included a seven-week winless drought. His ERA before the All-Star break was 3.12, compared to 5.23 after the break.

His season was interrupted by a freak injury suffered while warming up for a rare relief appearance, vaguely diagnosed as either a hip or groin strain that cost him a start for the first time since he moved out of the bullpen in 2002.

Lowe went home to Florida during the offseason, reconnected with physical therapist Chris Correnti, and, with fewer personal distractions, he said he was able to work harder on conditioning than he has since becoming a Dodger.

"I feel as good as I have in a long time," said Lowe, who cruised through his first bullpen session on Saturday. "I feel good mentally and physically."

Lowe, a workhorse who has averaged 33 starts and 207 innings the past six seasons, said there have been no discussions about a contract extension, and this time, that's fine.

"I've learned how to deal with any situation," said Lowe, one of three pitchers with at least 12 wins in each of the past six seasons and third in Major League victories since 2002. "If they come to you, great. If not, I absolutely won't let it get to me. If nothing happens, I'm not going out there trying to prove them wrong."

Although he had his most successful seasons pitching for Grady Little in Boston, Lowe has been supportive of the Dodgers' change in managers from Little to Joe Torre, having studied Torre and the Yankees up close before he changed leagues.

Here's what Lowe said of the new manager:

"We need a forceful guy. We had to do something. He [Torre] gets the best out of people. Critics jump on the fact that his success is because he had the biggest payroll, but that is so not the point. Last year, he managed a lot of young players and they won for him. I'm really excited that he's here."

Here's what the new manager said of Lowe:

"He's a grinder who takes the ball and doesn't seem to be distracted," Torre said. "He's a blue-collar guy who pitches as long as he's needed. He makes the ball sink, and it's tough to do anything with. We found out the hard way in '04; he beat me in Game 7 [of the ALCS]. He seems to be a good teammate. He's a free spirit, we all know that, but he seems to be able to separate the two."

Lowe believed that the Dodgers wouldn't have hired Torre without also committing to upgrading the roster. The moves have been selective -- primarily the addition of Japanese starting pitcher Hiroki Kuroda and center fielder Andruw Jones -- but Lowe is upbeat about the team's chances.

"If everyone just has an average year, we've got a really good team," he said. "We have a lot of talent. We don't need a lot of career years to get over the hump."