LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - The only thing missing from George Lombard's bat is the red glare.
The hitter Javy Lopez describes as "the strongest guy on the team" is rocketing pitches to distant parts of Disney's Wide World of Sports, an aerial bombardment that threatens the cars parked beyond the right field wall.
This is not an unusual display for Lombard during batting practice; it's duplicating the consistent contact during games that's eluded him since the Braves handed him a $425,000 bonus to give up a football scholarship to the University of Georgia in 1994 and focus on baseball.
A few hitters have struck out more often than Lombard during seven years in the minor leagues. Despite being blessed with an extraordinary combination of power and speed, the Atlanta native has averaged a strikeout every 3.23 at-bats and has failed to stick with the Braves since making his major league debut in 1998.
"He is worth every bit of the money we signed him for," manager Bobby Cox insisted. "He's the fastest guy on the team, and it's a matter of being consistent at the plate. He's a guy we would love to see come around."
This is Lombard's final shot with the Braves. He's out of options, and another team is likely to claim him if he's placed on waivers. While Cox insists he'll carry Lombard if he has a good spring, there doesn't appear to be a job open if the club trades for a right-handed-hitting backup outfielder, which is its plan.
Lombard's intelligence and classiness have made a deep impression on Cox and general manager John Schuerholz, but there's no getting around the fact that his slow development has been disappointing. He appeared to be on the verge of jumping to the majors to stay when he was named the MVP of the Arizona Fall League in 1999, but he followed up with a mediocre season at Class AAA Richmond last year, hitting .276 with 10 homers and 48 RBI.
Still, Lombard has his supporters. Hitting coach Merv Rettenmund remains firmly in his corner and believes he could develop into a solid big league hitter.
"I'm a really big George Lombard guy," Rettenmund said. "I've seen him do it the way a major league hitter does it when he's really good. I think if you ever see him do it at this level with any consistency, his defense will follow with his offense."
The left-handed-hitting Lombard's problem has been a failure to make consistent contact at the plate. The club believes if he would put the ball in play regularly, he could use his outstanding speed to beat out infield hits. But, in four of his seven minor league seasons, his strikeout totals have topped 120, and he's hit .280 or better just once.
"I think strikeouts are something you can't worry about," Lombard said. "You've got to set your goals high and concentrate on getting more hits, not concentrate on striking out less."
Lombard, 25, has been hampered the past two years by injuries, a strained groin knocking him out for almost a month in 1999 and a sore right foot slowing him last season. He received three cortisone shots in his foot last year, then skipped winter ball to rest it and says this is the best he's felt in several years.
Even if the Braves decide to keep Lombard, he'll play sparingly because there's no room in the outfield. Cox says he'd be willing to hold onto Lombard and use him as a pinch-hitter and runner, but without regular at-bats he's going to struggle at the plate.
"I've never played in a part-time situation," Lombard said. "Ideally, that's not what I want to do. I want to play every day eventually and get a lot of at-bats."
Rettenmund would like the club to approach Lombard the same way it did Rafael Furcal last season, giving him two or three starts a week to keep him sharp and maintain his confidence. It worked for Furcal, who turned in a performance that earned him rookie-of-the-year honors.
"My question hasn't been about power, it's been about consistency," Lombard said. "This is a strange situation to be in because it's tough to plan ahead. It's strange not knowing where I'm going to be."
VERAS REPORTS TO CAMP: Quilvio Veras joined his teammates on the field Thursday morning for the first time in seven months and said his right knee was healing nicely.
The second baseman, who missed the second half of last season after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament, showed good mobility and range. He indicated he plans to take his comeback slowly this spring and aim to be ready in six weeks.
"The only thing I'm not doing yet is playing in games," said Veras, who missed Wednesday's first full-squad workout because of a airline ticket mix-up. "The main thing is to be there on opening day."
Cox says he plans to check with Veras and doctors every day before deciding whether the second baseman will play. Veras, who was the leadoff hitter during the first half, said he doesn't mind losing his job to Rafael Furcal.
"I've hit second before in San Diego with Rickey Henderson there," he said. "Hitting first or second, it doesn't matter to me."
COMEBACK TRAIL: Steve Avery doesn't know how this spring will unfold, but he won't spend the season in the low minors riding buses again, as he did last summer.
"I don't think I want to put myself and my family through another minor league tour," he said. "If I see no improvement at all, I'll go home and play softball."
The former 18-game winner for the Braves underwent shoulder surgery in August 1999 and hasn't pitched in the majors since then. Avery says his arm is completely recovered. But, he can't say the same for his mechanics.
His delivery got out of whack while he pitched in pain during the last several years and finding the proper release point and arm angle has tested his patience.
"It's just a matter of getting rid of all the bad habits I got into over the years," he said. "I'm just not consistent, I haven't really settled on one delivery. That's the problem. I'll do one thing one day and try it again the next day and it won't feel as good.
"I just figure one day I'll get out there and it will click."
It's particularly frustrating for Avery because he'll throw well while playing catch in the outfield, but when he gets to the mound, his command disappears.
"I feel good about it because my arm is sound," he said. "That's the part that's really good because there's no stiffness, no pain. It's just a matter of working out the other stuff."
Still, he admits doubts creep into his mind. He hasn't had a winning record in the majors since he was 10-7 with the Red Sox in 1998, hasn't had an earned run average below 4.00 since he posted a 2.94 ERA with the Braves in 1993. He will turn 31 in April and he wonders if his career is nearing its end.
"There's always doubts, especially since I didn't even sniff the big leagues last year," Avery said. "To me those doubts are a little easier to handle because I'm at the point where if I don't do it, I go home to my family, hang with my kids and play golf."
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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