LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.- Braves manager Bobby Cox threw open the competition for the fifth starter's job Sunday, naming 23-year-old left-hander Horacio Ramirez to start against the Phillies in Friday's Grapefruit League opener and 24-year-old right-hander Trey Hodges to start a split-squad game the next day.
Jason Marquis, who Cox has acknowledged is the leading candidate to be the fifth starter, will wait to follow Russ Ortiz on March 3 against the Astros.
"I'm going to have my eyes open on that fifth job," Cox said.
Marquis, who experienced shoulder pain last fall and won't pitch batting practice for the first time until Wednesday, was surprised to learn he would not start Monday. He said he won't get caught up in the competition.
"I don't worry about anybody else or what anybody else thinks," he said. "Some people feed off that and some don't. I'm going to try my hardest, whether it's my job to begin with or not."
Ramirez has been impressive during the first 10 days of camp, displaying command of four pitches, including a fastball in the low 90s. After ligament replacement surgery on his left elbow almost two years ago, he said he's stronger and a better .
"I'm a more well-rounded pitcher," said Ramirez, who was 9-5 with a 3.03 ERA in 16 starts at Class AA Greenville last year. "I have a better feel for what's going on on the field. Everything has come together and I've evolved as a pitcher."
Cox explained his choice of Ramirez this way: "He's making a start because we want to see him."
Filling out the remainder of the rotation, Greg Maddux will start against the Mets on Saturday, then Mike Hampton will go Sunday against the Expos, and Paul Byrd is scheduled to start March 4 against the Expos at Viera.
PRACTICE MAKES ...: Roberto Hernandez didn't pick up a ball until January and didn't throw off a mound since last September until he arrived here. All the time off apparently did wonders for his 38-year-old arm.
Hernandez, a closer who was signed to work as a setup man for John Smoltz, has been the talk of camp. The former USC Aiken star has shown a lively fastball and a devastating split-finger, and Cox has come away impressed.
"He's been terrific," Cox said. "He looks ready to start the season."
After missing some time last season with a strained tendon in his right elbow, Hernandez spent the winter strengthening the muscles around the tendon. He loosened up his shoulder tossing a football around with his son in January and arrived at camp ready to go.
"What I'm most impressed with is I'm throwing my slider and split well," he said. "I always have trouble with those two pitches early. Since I'm a reliever my body is accustomed to throwing, but I'm still surprised to be throwing this well this early."
THAT'S A SIGN: Andruw Jones awed the fans who stuck around to watch extra hitting Sunday afternoon by blasting a tape-measure shot over the center field scoreboard. It was easily the longest ball of the spring and one of the longest since the team moved here six years ago. The fans applauded his effort, but Cox shrugged.
"I've seen him hit it just as far to right field in batting practice," he said. "He's really strong."
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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