Hampton all but ready to return

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JUPITER, Fla. --- Mike Hampton is back on track to open the season in the Atlanta Braves' rotation.

Hampton allowed a run and two hits over 4 q innings in a 4-2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday. The left-hander's encouraging performance came 10 days after he had to leave a start with a slight right groin pull.

He threw 75 pitches in his longest outing of the spring. His previous best was only two innings in his exhibition debut on March 2.

"That's the biggest hurdle I've jumped over yet," Hampton said. "To be able to extend it and run the bases a little bit ... It was a good step."

Hampton left his March 7 start against the Tigers after only four outs, and then threw a 59-pitch simulated game on Wednesday. He missed all of the past two seasons with injuries.

"I threw as many pitches as I needed to throw, and the quality was pretty good," said Hampton, who struck out three and walked three. "... I don't see any reason why I can't be ready to go."

Right fielder Jeff Francoeur was not with the Braves, a day after he was beaned by Todd Wellemeyer but escaped with only a busted lip. Francoeur returned to Orlando and hopes to be in the lineup Wednesday or Thursday.

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