LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - To Matt Belisle, it matters little that his first start of the spring will come against the University of Georgia.
After missing last season following disc surgery on his lower back, the right-hander is just happy to be pitching again.
"I was very excited when (pitching coach) Leo Mazzone told me," said Belisle, who will start Thursday's exhibition season opener. "I was hoping to get that start."
Belisle is familiar with the Bulldogs, having faced them two years ago in his first spring training with the Braves. That outing remains a favorite topic, mostly because he's had so few highlights since then.
Belisle, who won't turn 22 until June, ruptured a disc last spring, underwent surgery, and didn't pitch again until last fall's Instructional League. From there he went to the Arizona Fall League, where baseball's top prospects hone their skills, and came away confident in his progress.
"It was extremely beneficial," he said. "It showed me all my strengths and exploited all my weaknesses. I learned so much from that league and came away with a tremendous amount of confidence in my changeup."
Belisle will probably start the season at Class AA Greenville. With a mid-90s fastball and an improved changeup, he could come fast, arriving in Atlanta as early as next year.
Belisle will pitch two innings Thursday and be followed by Juan Bong, John Ennis, Scott Sobkowiak, and Billy Sylvester.
NEW APPROACH: Kerry Ligtenberg cut back on his weight work this winter and didn't start throwing until the first week of January, which he credits for his improved command this spring.
"Last year I came in strong and too tight and it took me awhile to get nice and loose," he said. "Usually in the spring there's an adjustment period until I get my command back, but it's been better this spring than it has ever been before."
That's good news for Ligtenberg, who struggled through the first two months last season, posting a 7.36 ERA in April and a 6.43 ERA in May. By the time he found his command, manager Bobby Cox had lost confidence in him.
"Hopefully I'll have a chance to contribute a little bit more this season," Ligtenberg said. "I didn't get a chance to pitch in many close games last year. I'm excited. I feel like I'm going to have a good season."
QUICK HITS: Ten days late, Jose Cabrera arrived in camp Sunday and demonstrated his tardiness won't affect his spring. The reliever, who had visa problems in his native Dominican Republic, joined the rotation of pitchers and worked 10 minutes of batting practice. ... Outfielder George Lombard and shortstop Rafael Furcal agreed to one-year contracts over the weekend, reducing the number of unsigned players in camp to five: Jason Marquis, Wes Helms, Mark DeRosa, Wilson Betemit and Jesse Garcia.
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