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03/28/08 10:00 AM ET

'Smarter' Penny set for first opener

Torre confident in Dodgers ace thriving on grand stage

LOS ANGELES -- The resume already includes World Series hero and All-Star Game starter, and on Monday at Dodger Stadium against the Giants, Brad Penny adds the honor of Opening Day starter to his resume as the Dodgers kick off their 50th anniversary in Los Angeles.

Penny gets the nod from new Dodgers manager -- and fellow thoroughbred racehorse owner -- Joe Torre, who saw what Penny can do on a big stage in the 2003 World Series, when he beat Torre's Yankees twice in the Marlins' title run.

"I'll take it just like another game," said Penny. "I won't get too emotional for a start like this. It's not like a World Series or playoff game, but I'm excited about it."

Penny, the senior Dodger in terms of uninterrupted service with the club, has inherited the mantle from Derek Lowe, starter of the last three Dodgers Opening Day games. Penny is coming off his second consecutive 16-win season, going 16-4 with a 3.03 ERA. Still only 29, the Oklahoma native is coming off the best Spring Training of his career.

"I'm mixing it up and getting smarter," Penny said. "I've got command of my pitches better than I did before. Usually my springs are horrible, but maybe that's because I didn't have a splitter and a curveball.

"I'm moving it in and out, up and down. I'm locating the four-seamer and I've got the split, so if I got behind in the count in the past, hitters knew they were getting a fastball. Now, they're not so sure. I'm just smarter."

That, says catcher Russell Martin, is the biggest change in Penny over the past two seasons.

"It's true," Martin said. "He's doing the little things in the game, the subtleties. Maybe being around Greg Maddux two years ago helped him out. Brad sees a guy pitch like that and get guys out. He makes it look so easy.

"Brad is a smart guy, and smart people learn from successful people. Brad definitely does that. He's smart on the mound. Sometimes he pretends like he's not, but he's really clever."

Martin said Penny's split-finger fastball has taken the right-hander to another level.

"It's made the fastball and breaking ball so much better," said Martin. "Now he can throw it any time. It helps him get quick outs, which is really key for him so he can throw fewer pitches and go deeper into games."

Penny pitched a career-high 208 innings in 2007. His 32-13 record over the past two years is the best in the league. His 20-3 mark during the first half of the past two seasons is the best since Randy Johnson went 17-2 in 1996-97. He finished third in last year's National League Cy Young Award voting.

Penny has been only break-even against the Giants in his career (3-3) and last year (1-1). Meanwhile, the Dodgers were 10-8 against the Giants last season, but only 3-6 at home.

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