LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The man who will be closer can't remember when throwing a baseball was so enjoyable.
"It's pretty easy to be motivated when you sit out a year," said Kerry Ligtenberg, who missed last season after suffering a partial tear of the medial collateral ligament in his right elbow. "I've been close to airing it out a few times and they've had to back me down because I've been pushing it a little bit."
Ligtenberg's comeback is being watched closely by the Atlanta Braves, who are in need of a closer following John Rocker's suspension. So far, his return has been uneventful. He's throwing at about 90 percent, he'll begin mixing in sliders this week and he plans to start throwing his split-finger fastball next month.
"The last time I saw him he was throwing 10 feet and tossing the ball," catcher Javy Lopez said. "Now he's throwing cheese. His fastball is pretty smooth, but you don't know how his elbow is going to react when he starts throwing the slider."
Bobby Bonilla, who faced Ligtenberg in batting practice Saturday morning, went away shaking his head.
"It was like he was throwing 200 miles per hour with a little sinkage on it," he said. "He was throwing hard, trust me."
Said manager Bobby Cox, "He's got that giddyup on his fastball at the end."
Throwing a split-finger fastball will be the real test. If Ligtenberg's elbow is going to bother him, it will probably come as a result of throwing split-fingers, which place a tremendous strain on the ligament that was replaced. He still plans to throw the pitch, though that could change, depending on the state of his elbow and the advice of doctors.
For now, he's focusing on throwing fastballs and strengthening his arm.
"No pain, the ball is live and I have good control," he said. "It's almost too good. It's crazy. The doctors tell me everything is strong and everything is good and I believe what they say.
"Time is an asset right now. There's no need to get ready until April 4. For the Braves, we'll take it slow, but for me I'd like to push it a little bit more."
It was nearly a year ago that Ligtenberg returned to the clubhouse following a disastrous ninth-inning exhibition game appearance against the Astros knowing something was terribly wrong with his elbow. He was devastated at learning he would need "Tommy John" surgery to repair the damage and miss the entire season.
"They say it takes anywhere from six to 18 months," he said. "I think I knew last year that it was going to come along real fast because at the end of last season it was doing really well, to where I was throwing pretty hard. I pushed it as hard as I could when (doctors) let me that so it would come back fast and that's been the case."
Hurting emotionally, as well as physically, Ligtenberg stayed away from the team last year until he could start throwing again. He filled his time with fishing, rollerblading and mountain biking and spent time with his wife, Sara, whom he married only three months before the injury.
"It was a chance for me and my wife to go and do some things during the summer that we wouldn't do while I was playing," he said. "I had to take the approach that it was kind of like a vacation. Even though I would have loved to have been playing, I just had to do some stuff to take my mind away from the game. I'm glad that it's over with because I wouldn't want to do it again. It was a tough seven-month season for me.
"I had never been hurt before, so that was tough. I had never been not able to play baseball, which was tough. I would definitely say it's one of the tougher things that I've had to go through."
Ligtenberg's value to the bullpen can't be understated. If he can regain the dominance he displayed as a rookie in 1998 when he had 30 saves in 34 opportunities, it would have a domino effect on the five other relievers. Each could be fitted into a long relief or setup role and Rocker's absence wouldn't be a burden.
When Rocker returns and figuring Ligtenberg is healthy, the Braves would have the league's strongest bullpen. But the duo would also present Cox with the dilemma of choosing a closer, which would invariably cause some hard feelings. Ligtenberg suggested they share the job, depending on who's pitching most effectively.
"I think Bobby will go with whoever is throwing well," Ligtenberg said. "That's what he's done in the past, whoever's had the hot hand. I hope I am closing when May 1 rolls around and I can push the issue a little."