Everything about Phillies Opening Day starter Kevin Millwood resembles thick maple syrup spilling onto a stack of piping hot pancakes.

His delivery, mannerisms, voice and approach to the game have a smooth, easy, natural and relaxed flow.

Not much flusters this sturdy 6-4, 220-pounder, who will attempt to become the Phillies' first right-handed 20-game winner since Robin Roberts went 23-14 in 1955.

The baseball world was stunned when Atlanta dealt Millwood, 72-46 in five years with the Braves, to the N.L. East rival Phillies for minor-league catcher Johnny Estrada on December 20.

''It was the one of the best Christmas presents I've ever received,'' Phillies manager Larry Bowa said.

A spectacular spring training has helped Millwood dispel the notion he was damaged goods.

The Gastonia, N.C., native, who admits he just likes playing good, old-fashioned, country hardball, insists he's not a hired gun.

A free agent at season's end, Millwood disputes reports he's already decided to return to Atlanta in 2004.

''That's news to me,'' Millwood said. ''I don't know whose plan that is, but I haven't made that plan. I enjoy myself here. We have a good young team with a bright future.''

Millwood was very comfortable living in Duluth, Ga., with his wife and two young sons. Finding and maintaining a similar comfort zone in the Philadelphia area will ultimately determine if he decides to stay with the Phillies.

''I'm still going to give it some time,'' said Millwood, who will rent a Main Line home in Glad-wyne. ''I want to think about it. I want to experience life in Philly for a little while. I've made no plans whatsoever to go back to Atlanta. I love it here so far. I like all the players, coaches. The front office has been great. So have the fans. I've been enjoying everything.''

What's not to like?

His wry sense of humor and playful antics have made him an immediate clubhouse hit. More importantly, pitching coach Joe Kerrigan says Millwood is one of the game's elite hurlers.

''Kevin is an artist out there,'' Kerrigan said. ''He knows how to set hitters up and then finish them off by painting the corners.''

He does it with two- and four-seam mid-90s fastballs that dart and swerve with plenty of late movement, a hellacious curve that tests the machismo of batters and a nifty changeup and slider.

All of that is backed by knowledge, poise and command that comes only with experience.

Millwood's brilliance — his .620 career winning percentage ranks fifth among active N.L. pitchers with at least 90 career decisions — has gone virtually unnoticed because he's worked his entire career in the shadow of Atlanta pitching legends Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.

Millwood went 18-8 with a 3.24 ERA last season and did not make the All-Star team. He allowed two or fewer runs in 21 of his 34 starts and the Braves won 20 of his final 23 starts.

''I don't feel cheated in any way on publicity,'' Millwood said. ''I don't need a lot of notoriety. I don't need my picture on the front page and stuff like that. Those other guys get what they deserve. You can run out of paper listing all their accomplishments.''