ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - This spring's best starter for the Atlanta Braves hasn't been Greg Maddux or rookie sensation Horacio Ramirez. It's been the quiet California native, Russ Ortiz.
The right-hander, a 14-game winner for the San Francisco Giants last season, has made the Braves feel very good about dealing young left-hander Damian Moss to San Francisco in a December trade. He worked five shutout innings in Tuesday's 4-3 win over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Progress Energy Park, allowing just three hits and walking one, and striking out two.
Ortiz has given up just two runs in 14 innings (1.29 ERA) this spring.
"Initially I wanted to impress (the Braves) a little bit, but I had a lot of people telling me to just do the things I normally do," he said. "I'm close to where I need to be. Today was a good solid five innings, but after a couple more outings I definitely will be ready."
Ortiz, who will start the third game of the season against the Montreal Expos on April 3, said he has focused on hitting his spots and changing speeds in his first four starts. He entered the game having limited hitters to a .179 average, and has now allowed eight hits and four walks in his 14 innings.
'He's been right on target," manager Bobby Cox said.
HARD WORK PAYING OFF: Second baseman Marcus Gilessaid there are two reasons for the significant improvement in his defense.
"Hard work and Hubby," he explained.
Hubby is former Braves second baseman and current first base coach Glenn Hubbard, who has worked exhaustively with Giles for several years to smooth his glove work.
"The more (repetitions) you take, the more confidence you're going to have," Giles said. "It feels nice to want the ball hit to you."
Giles' defense is finally noticeable for the right reasons. He no longer staggers under pop flies, he snaps his throws with confidence, and he has shown improved range and soft hands. He has played 15 games this spring without committing an error.
"The more you play, the better you get and the more confident," Cox said. "He can turn the double play and he moves well."
REASSIGNED: Cox made a second round of cuts after the game, sending second baseman Nick Green, shortstop Wilson Betemit, and first baseman Adam LaRoche to Class AAA Richmond, and assigning catchers Bryce Terveen and Mike Hubbard, infielder Ramon Castro, and pitcher Derrick Lewis to the minor-league camp.
There are 35 players remaining in camp.
AROUND THE HORN: Shortstop Rafael Furcal, who has missed 14 of the past 15 days with a sprained ankle, remains questionable to return by the end of the week. ... Tampa Bay fans have long memories. They mercilessly booed third baseman Vinny Castilla, remembering the .215 average he produced in 24 games for the Devil Rays in 2001. ... Left-hander Mike Venafro removed himself from the bullpen picture by giving up a three-run home run to Toby Hall in the seventh to eclipse a 2-0 lead. ... Shortstop Mark DeRosa made the play of the game, leaping to glove Travis Lee's line drive in the fourth and turned it into a double play. ... The Braves will enjoy their only day off of the spring today, then return to Disney's Cracker Jack Stadium for back-to-back night games against the Expos and Detroit Tigers on Thursday and Friday.
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.