ATLANTA - Johnny Estrada said he still feels pain in his back every time he overswings.
He said watching his teammates play every day without him hurts even worse, though, which is why Estrada returned to the lineup Friday after serving a two-game suspension.
"The last two days were awful, sitting at home on the couch watching the game on TV," Estrada said before the opener of a four-game series against Pittsburgh at Turner Field. "That was no fun."
Strong words from a player who enjoys discomfort - he admits he would rather catch on a sweltering day in August than a cold night in April because its easier to rehydrate than loosen up stiff muscles.
The two-game suspension Estrada drew for arguing with an umpire took more of a toll on him than the lingering physical effects of his collision at the plate with Anaheim's Darin Erstad on June 6.
"My back's good. It will always be good," Estrada said. "Good through November."
Estrada saw a back specialist Friday in hopes of finding relief from the periodic muscle spasms in his upper back and the inflammation in his lower spine.
The doctor told Estrada time off wouldn't necessarily lead to improvement in his back, another reason for the catcher to get back in the lineup immediately.
Manager Bobby Cox said he had no reservations about putting Estrada behind the plate Friday, in part because of the flexibility provided by rookie Brian McCann. McCann has hit .273 in 20 games since being called up from the minors when veteran Eddie Perez went on the disabled list.
"Once you have a bad back, you're always going to have a bad back," Cox said. "They just flare up. I think we can work around it."
HAMPTON IS IMPROVING: Pitcher Mike Hampton played catch Friday, the first time he's thrown since "1998."
Hampton's exaggerating - he started a game on July 17 - but his frustration is obvious. He spent more than six weeks on the disabled list earlier this season with a strained left forearm only to hurt his back two days after his return. Hampton hurt his back on July 19 when the Braves were in San Francisco.
Hampton is 4-2 this season with a 2.51 ERA.
FRANCOEUR CONTINUES TO IMPRESS:The dazzling start to Jeff Francoeur's major league career should prevent the 21-year-old from spending another day in the minor leagues, Braves veteran Julio Franco said.
Francoeur hit two home runs in Thursday's victory over Washington, giving him four in 12 games since his call-up from Class AA Mississippi. He's batting .441 and made his third consecutive start in right field Friday.
Reach Adam Van Brimmer at (404) 589-8424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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