LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - During a Tuesday morning of drills and batting practice, Quilvio Veras' trip around the bases went largely unnoticed.
But the first turns on a surgically repaired right knee were significant to the Atlanta Braves second baseman, who hasn't played since his knee buckled against the Orioles last July 14.
"It felt weak, but it didn't hurt," said Veras, whose .413 on-base percentage led the team at the time of his injury. "Today was a big day for me. I wanted to see how fast I can go and how I'm moving."
Thumbs up to both questions. Veras moved well laterally while fielding ground balls, and though he didn't run the bases at full speed, he was satisfied with how his knee responded. Nonetheless, the Braves are approaching his comeback cautiously.
Manager Bobby Cox plans to check on Veras' condition with trainers every day before deciding whether he will play during the exhibition season.
"He's ready to go, but I told him we'd sit down with doctors and trainers," Cox said. "There's no rush, that's for sure."
Veras, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament and cartilage, is expected to be ready by Opening Day. A switch hitter who was hitting .309 with a club-leading 25 steals at the time of his injury, his return gives the club a pair of hitters at the top of the lineup who can score 100 runs each.
"He was our toughest out when we lost him," Cox said. "He was really rolling. He was on his way to his best season ever."
After a 4-for-25 start in his first season with the Braves, Veras hit .322 over his next 74 games. His injury spoiled his season and forced rookie Rafael Furcal to the top of the lineup, where he turned in a Rookie of the Year performance. Veras' absence hurt most in the playoffs. Furcal hit .091 and stole one base as the Cardinals swept the Braves in three games in the first round.
"We lost a .300 hitter who was leading off," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "Quilvio is pretty patient; he takes his walks, takes a lot of pitches, gets on base and makes things happen. While Furcal did a pretty good job, it would have been nice to have both of them."
Watching from the bench as the Braves held off the Mets and won a ninth straight division title only to make an early exit from the postseason was painful, Veras acknowledged.
"It was hard; there was a lot of frustration because you can't do anything to help the team," he said.
Veras' recovery has been a long and frustrating process. He spent much of the winter in his native Dominican Republic working on strengthening his knee. He will continue with a twice-a-day exercise program throughout spring training, and he hopes by opening day he'll be given a clean bill of health.
If Veras were younger and trying to win a job, he might be tempted to rush back. But he's got some miles on him and says he plans to make a slow and steady comeback, focusing on the future, rather than on the here and now.
"It's better for me and better for the team," he said. "It's stupid to rush to play in the first game and get hurt. I know I'm going to be 110 percent on Opening Day and ready to play."
Doctors have assured Veras, who turns 30 in April, that the injury won't cost him any speed or quickness. But until he ranges up the middle, backhands a grounder, then spins and throws a runner out at first, doubts will linger in the back of his mind.
"We'll see how my knee feels tomorrow," he said.
Reach Bill Zack at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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