LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - If Mike Hampton was a rookie, he probably wouldn't win a job, not with an 8.00 ERA and a hits-to-innings ratio of 16-9.
Hampton, who is already penciled into the No. 2 spot in the rotation behind Greg Maddux isn't worried about his spring numbers.
"My pitch selection is not even near what it will be during the season," Hampton said. "I'm just making sure I throw plenty of sinkers and continue working on my pitches regardless of the count. The closer it gets to the start of the season the more I'll start getting into game-type situations and focusing a little more on results. My first three outings I've been concerned with my arm slot and whether my ball is moving."
By all accounts, Hampton's found his sinker again. That's encouraging to manager Bobby Cox, who's betting on Hampton returning to his 22-win form of 1999. Judging by Hampton's performance so far, the team shouldn't expect the transformation from last year's 15-game loser to 20-game winner to occur overnight.
Hampton, who gave up six runs in four innings Wednesday, has faced 44 batters this spring and retired barely half of them, giving up 16 hits and four walks. In his defense, his primary focus has been on rediscovering his bread-and-butter pitch, the sinker, with little attention paid to setting up hitters or working the corners.
"If I throw a pitch to work on something and not to get somebody out, I can't expect the same result," he said. "I'm here to work on things. If (Wednesday's game) was my last start before the season, then maybe I'd be concerned. But I know my sinker is better than it has been in quite awhile, and I'm happy about that."
THE RETURN: Mark DeRosa was back in lineup Thursday, two days after being hit by a pitch just above the right elbow. He says he's not likely to forget the pain or the pitcher - Dodgers right-hander David Lee.
"It was probably the worst pain I ever felt for a 30-second period," said DeRosa, a three-year starter at quarterback at Pennsylvania. "It hit right on that nerve, that funny bone. I don't know why they call it that, it's actually the agony bone."
DeRosa was fortunate that all he received was a bruise for his pain. It easily could have been worse.
"I got lucky, I guess," he said. "It's still a little sore, but I threw in the cage and it felt all right. I'll never forget (Lee) though."
HURTING BYRD: Pitcher Paul Byrd is anxious to start throwing again, but trainers are being cautious with him.
He won't be allowed to throw until he's been examined by team doctor Joe Chandler Saturday. Byrd, who has been slowed by a sore groin and tender elbow, hasn't pitched since working one inning March 4.
FINDING HIS STRIDE: Catcher Javy Lopez is notorious for changing his stance at the plate whenever he's not hitting. That means his stance has been in constant flux for three years. Hitting coach Terry Pendleton has counseled him to find a comfortable stance and stick with it, advice that Lopez has followed this spring.
"Last year at this point I was standing in a different position every day," Lopez said. "This year I stood in one place the first game and I'm still there. I feel relaxed. I'm totally focused on the game."
Lopez's comfort has translated into a .316 average and four RBI in seven games.
SHORT HOPS: Chipper Jones has worked with his father Larry and Pendleton the last few days on his right-handed swing. The extra work paid off in the first inning Thursday night when he singled in two runs against Tampa Bay left-hander Joe Kennedy. ... Shortstop Rafael Furcal returned to the lineup after missing 10 games with a sprained ankle and singled in his first at-bat. ... A group of players underwent mandatory drug testing before the game. A computer randomly selected the players. ... Atlanta's pitchers entered the game leading the majors with a 2.57 ERA. The hitters ranked second in the National League with a .299 batting average.
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