LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Anyone who thought Mike Hampton would miraculously turn back into a 20-game winner when he adjusted his arm slot should think again.
Hampton showed he's still a work in progress after he foundered through his latest outing, an 8-7 win over the St. Louis Cardinals Monday in which he was charged with four runs in five innings.
"It's a grind," he said. "But I made more good pitches than bad. It's a gradual thing, it's not going to happen overnight."
The left-hander didn't pitch much better than in his seven-hit, six-run outing against Houston on March 12. He has allowed 23 hits and 13 runs in 14 innings this spring for an ERA of 7.07.
"I think he's getting a feel for all his pitches right now," manager Bobby Cox said. "He just has to get more organized in exactly what he wants to do out there."
Hampton said he saw improvement in his sinker, which he throws about 70 percent of the time. "The more I throw my sinker, the more comfortable I get," he said. "In the bullpen, things are nice and smooth. I tend to overthrow when I get on the mound. I'm not the most patient guy. I get upset with myself at times."
Hampton has two starts left before the start of the season. He is scheduled to pitch again Sunday in Port St. Lucie against the New York Mets.
"Am I there? No. But I'm closer than I was the last start," he said.
RAMIREZ STILL LEADS: Jason Marquis stumbled in his bid to overtake Horacio Ramirez for the fifth starter's job. He relieved Hampton and cruised into the ninth inning with a 7-5 lead, but the Cardinals rallied with three hits and a hit batter to tie the game.
Marquis was charged with five hits and three runs, two earned, in four innings.
"He made two real bad 0-2 pitches," Cox said. "Other than that he pitched real good. He looked like the old Jason."
BYRD'S INJURED WING: Paul Byrd felt a twinge in his right elbow and was scratched from Wednesday's start in a minor league game. He will be evaluated Thursday and might start in a minor league game Friday or Saturday.
"If it's still there he doesn't need to be pitching," Cox said.
It now seems likely Byrd will start the season on the disabled list. He has been hampered by a sore groin and a tender elbow and has pitched just one inning this spring.
DOZEN UNDECIDED: Opening Day is less than two weeks away, but Cox isn't ready to commit to a 12-man pitching staff yet. He indicated he would carry an extra reliever if a starter, like Byrd, has been hurt and isn't likely to go more than five innings in his first outing or two.
"You just don't want to ruin your pitching staff the first month of the season by overusing them," he said.
Cox is likely to go with a seven-man bullpen, with the final three jobs going to Andy Pratt, Kevin Gryboski and Marquis, if he doesn't win the fifth starter's job.
GETTING THE THUMB: Chipper Jones was given a second straight day off to rest a sore left thumb. He aggravated it two days ago and is concerned it might bother him throughout the season.
"All it takes is one bad swing," he said.
Jones will skip today's trip to St. Petersburg to play the Devil Rays. That will give his thumb two more days of rest, including Wednesday's day off. Jones, who missed the first week of games after spraining his thumb while making a diving catch against Georgia Tech, is reluctant to miss more time.
"I can't go a week without seeing a pitch," he said. "I don't want to miss more than two or three days."
AROUND THE DIAMOND: Shortstop Rafael Furcal, nursing a sprained ankle, won't return until Thursday at the earliest. Cox said he's more concerned about Furcal playing and aggravating his ankle again, than by Furcal's lack of at-bats. "If he played the last two games against the Red Sox, who knows he might go 4 for 4 (on Opening Day)," Cox said. "I don't worry about his hitting at all." ... Infielder Ramon Castro will look back on this spring with a sense of regret. He had a chance to win a job as a backup infielder, but this month has been a nightmare. He was charged with two more errors Monday, giving him six in 12 games, to go along with a .182 batting average. ... Andruw Jones continued his torrid March with two more hits and two RBI, boosting his average to .500 (14-for-28) and his RBI total to 11. ... The Braves won all four meetings with the Cardinals this spring, outscoring them, 28-12.
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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