Gonzalez nearing return to Atlanta

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ATLANTA --- Mike Gonzalez believes his long comeback is nearing its end.

Gonzalez  Special

Gonzalez, recovering from ligament replacement surgery on his left elbow, plans to report to Triple-A Richmond on Sunday for one or two injury rehabilitation appearances. He hopes to come off the disabled list next week for his 2008 debut with the Atlanta Braves.

Gonzalez said in the spring he was aiming for a May return, but the Braves have been cautious with the reliever who could return to a set-up role or possibly share save opportunities with Rafael Soriano and Manny Acosta .

Gonzalez threw in the bullpen Friday before the Braves' game against Philadelphia. He gave up no runs in four games in his rehab assignment at Double-A Mississippi. He gave up seven hits with no walks in five innings.

Gonzalez said this week's news that would-be closer John Smoltz will have season-ending shoulder surgery next week did not influence his desire to come off the disabled list as soon as possible.

"The sense of urgency has been there since day one, no matter if Smoltz is hurt," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said the long comeback "feels like a lifetime."

"It's the hardest thing I've had to do mentally."

Gonzalez recorded 24 saves for Pittsburgh in 2006. He was acquired by the Braves in the Jan. 19, 2007, trade that sent first baseman Adam LaRoche to Pittsburgh and was 2-0 with two saves and a 1.59 ERA in 18 games last season.

NORTON SAYS HE CAN PLAY: Greg Norton , held out of Thursday night's game with a twisted left knee, said Friday he was available to play.

Norton wore a wrap on the knee, which he said he hurt on Wednesday. He said he had "a little swelling" on Thursday.

WELCOME TO TURNER FIELD: Two of the Braves' first three picks in Thursday's opening day of the draft, pitchers Brett DeVall , a left-hander from Niceville (Fla.) High School, and Zeke Spruill , a right-hander from Kell High in Marietta, visited the clubhouse Friday afternoon and attended Friday night's game.

They were wide-eyed as they looked at Jeff Francoeur and other players at their lockers.

"It was pretty cool," DeVall said.

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