ATLANTA - Wes Helms smiled as he flexed his right thumb for curious reporters Tuesday afternoon in the Atlanta clubhouse, indicating he's almost ready to see his first action since coming off the 15-day disabled list last week.
"The easiest part is getting it strong," said Helms, who went on the DL August 10 when he strained the digit during a game against Houston. "Getting my timing down is going to be a little harder."
But that should not take very long.
The infielder took batting practice for the first time Monday afternoon before the Braves' game with Florida and reported no problems.
"As far as the hitting went, everything went good," he said. "I hit the ball on the line. I didn't feel weak, but I could tell the balls were going 30 feet less because I was afraid to let it go."
Helms took batting practice again before Tuesday's game against Philadelphia and hopes to be able to pinch-hit by this weekend and start next Tuesday's contest at Philadelphia.
"That's what we're shooting for," said Helms, who has been exercising with hand grips and lifting weights. "That will give me a week to get it strong. I'll turn it up a little more (today). I think I'm on pace to be ready for the playoffs."
However, Helms concedes that even if he's healthy, there's no guarantee manager Bobby Cox will include him on the team's 25-man playoff roster for the National League division series.
Although Cox hasn't announced his postseason plans, there is a chance Helms might find himself on the outside looking in as the Braves probably won't have Helms, second basemen Marcus Giles and Keith Lockhart, infielder Jesse Garcia and catcher Steve Torrealba all playing backup roles.
"I just hope I can prove to (Cox) that I'm ready to come off the bench in the playoffs," he said. "If the worse case happens in the division series and I'm not on the roster, then maybe the National League Championships. I'm just ready to help."
Before his injury, Helms (.249-6-22) was one of the Braves' hottest hitters, having gone 14 for his last 41 (.341).
PITCHING PLANS: Cox is never one to tip his hand about anything, especially his starting pitching plans for the upcoming division series, although the thought has crossed his mind.
However, the way the Braves' rotation is set up, don't be surprised if Kevin Millwood is bumped up between Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine if he doesn't start the best-of-five series himself.
Millwood is supposed to receive two more regular-season starts, Friday night against Florida and Sept. 26 at Philadelphia.
If that schedule holds true, Millwood's next day to pitch would be Oct. 1, which is when the Braves would begin postseason play if Arizona passes Atlanta for the best record in the National League. If the Braves maintain the NL's top mark, Atlanta will open the division series at Turner Field Oct. 2.
It might not be such a bad idea.
Millwood has been the team's best pitcher the second half of the season and enters Saturday's start against the Marlins with a record of 17-7 and an earned run average of 3.12.
SURHOFF APPEARANCE: Outfielder B.J. Surhoff was back in Atlanta on Tuesday, shaking hands and catching up with teammates.
On the disabled list since April 28 when he tore a ligament in his right knee during a home game against Houston, Surhoff is currently on the 60-day DL.
"I'm feeling better, but I've still got work to do as far as my rehab goes," Surhoff said. "I still hope to continue my baseball career."
It just probably won't be with the Braves.
Signed through the current season, Atlanta is not likely to offer Surhoff an extension once the playoffs are complete.
NOTES: Javy Lopez, coming off a three-homer series against the Marlins, has tied Del Crandall for the most homers by a catcher in Braves franchise history at 170. ... Atlanta is 53-5 since May 1 when Rafael Furcal has scored. ... Gametime for Saturday's contest against Florida has been moved to 1:05 p.m. ... Chris Hammond leads all major league relievers with an ERA of 1.02.
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