Originally created 04/14/02

Braves notebook

MIAMI - There's still a long way to go before Javy Lopez begins drawing comparisons to Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench, but he's heading in the right direction.

By throwing out four of five runners this season, Lopez and backup catcher Henry Blanco (2 for 2) have virtually shut down the opposition's running game.

Lopez strengthened his arm this spring with long tosses, and working with coaches Pat Corrales and Ned Yost, former big league catchers, has improved his footwork and technique. So, while he's hampered by a sore elbow, he has compensated with improved quickness.

"My technique is a lot different," Lopez said. "I'm getting rid of the ball faster. It doesn't matter how hard you throw as long as you use a quick release."

No catcher has a quicker release than Blanco. Lopez acknowledged he's improved his throwing by watching Blanco, and four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux heaped praise on Blanco following Friday night's 2-0 win.

"He could be really underrated as a catcher," Maddux said. "His game calling was very good."

It's been long forgotten, but Lopez, who nabbed 29 percent (25 of 86) of opposing runners last year, led major league catchers in fielding percentage (.995) and led National League catchers by throwing out 34 percent of runners in 1998. But knee surgery in 2000 took away some of his quickness, and he's just now regaining his defensive skills.

"Javy has been working on getting his agility back after his knee surgery," Yost said.

GOOD SIGN: Maddux ran around the outfield chasing down balls during early hitting Saturday, then gave an enthusiastic thumbs up to questions about the effect of Friday night's five innings on his sore back.

"I'm sore in all the right places," he said.

Maddux, who missed his first two starts with an inflamed nerve, wasn't on top of his game Friday, allowing four hits and two walks, but he got three double plays and a handshake from pitching coach Leo Mazzone.

"It was an unbelievable performance for not doing much for three weeks," Mazzone said. "Other guys would have to make rehab starts and build their innings back up."

How to explain Maddux's performance?

"Great coaching," Mazzone deadpanned.

AROUND THE DIAMOND: Reliever Mike Remlinger has retired all 15 batters he has faced this season. ... Julio Franco is hitless in eight trips to the plate on this road trip. ... The lineup's best hitter with runners in scoring position? Marcus Giles with a .364 average. ... Andruw Jones headed into Saturday's game with just one hit in his last 22 at-bats. ... Gary Sheffield knocked in his first run on the trip with a first-inning single Saturday against Marlins starter Ryan Dempster.

Reach Bill Zack at bzack30143@aol.com.


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