ATLANTA -- It's no coincidence that John Rocker's best stretch of the season has come as all the hoopla surrounding his return has died away.
The embattled closer has allowed an earned run only four times in his past 26 games (1.54 ERA), and his 19 saves ranks 10th in the National League.
"I'm starting to enjoy playing again and I want to get after someone," he said. "Before, I was just trying to survive. I'm back to having a good time playing."
Rocker came on with two runners on base and two outs in the eighth inning Tuesday night and got the final four outs against the Diamondbacks. That's a situation he likely would have struggled in several months ago.
"I think back in mid-June, I don't think I would have gotten out of that jam," he said. "I didn't have confidence or consistency back then."
The difference between now and then, Rocker says, is his workload has increased. The more frequent appearances he makes, the sharper he's been.
That's reflected in his command. In his first 38 games, he issued 41 walks. In his past 12 appearances, he's walked four.
"That's about as good as it can get," Rocker said of Tuesday's outing, in which he made 31 pitches, 23 for strikes. "I still have a couple of goals, but the most important one is I would like to retain the form I've had over the last six weeks or so."
The split callous on Rocker's left thumb, which bothered him earlier in the season, has not affected him for the past several weeks. It's not completely healed and it won't likely heal until this winter, but it's no longer causing him pain and limiting his effectiveness.
Rocker's save Tuesday night was the bullpen's 48th of the season, three shy of the 1982 franchise record. And, with Mike Remlinger and Kerry Ligtenberg each owning 12 saves, it begs the question, who will be the closer during the postseason?
"I've been getting the call the last two weeks, but there's been situations where a bunch of right-handed hitters are coming up and they'll stay with Kerry," Rocker said. "I don't know what the plans are for the rest of the season and the postseason."
The past four times Greg Maddux and Curt Schilling have opposed each other, Schilling has emerged on top.
The Diamondbacks' right-hander is 4-0, having allowed four earned runs in 34 innings against the Braves during that stretch. Maddux is 0-2 with a pair of no-decisions, allowing four earned runs in 27 innings.
The pair face off again tonight in the series finale at Turner Field, and Schilling isn't sure what to expect.
"He's coming off consecutive starts where he gave up five runs in the first," Schilling said. "The last time that happened was right around Halley's comet."
Maddux, of course, was completely ignorant of Schilling's recent dominance against him. For that matter, he says he'll head into the game without a backward glance at his past two starts.
"Should I dwell on (giving up five runs) and not sleep? Should I kick my dog? Those things don't help," he said. "I don't worry about those things. I don't need motivation. It doesn't matter if I threw a shutout or gave up 20 runs in my last start. I approach my next start as a new one."
The Braves added another pitcher to their bullpen Wednesday, calling up right-hander Chris Seelbach from Class AAA Richmond. The club designated left-hander Derrin Ebert for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster for Seelbach.
Seelbach was 5-9 with a 4.78 ERA in 29 games (22 starts) for Richmond, allowing 118 hits in 118 2/3 innings, with 96 strikeouts.
ANOTHER GOLD MINE?
The Braves scouting department landed one of the best players in this year's Dominican Republic class, signing third baseman Andy Marte for $600,000, the biggest bonus the team has ever paid a Dominican player.
"In our opinion, he was the premium guy in the Dominican this year," said Roy Clark, the club's Director of Scouting. "He's a very high-profile Dominican kid and we're very pleased."
When the contract for the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Marte, who turns 17 soon, is approved by the commissioner's office, he will report to the Instructional League at the team's Lake Buena Vista, Fla., spring training headquarters.
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