Hampton hurt while taking swings

Hampton hurt while taking batting practice

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- It has been nearly two full years since the Braves have sent a fully healthy Mike Hampton to the mound. And it appears it will be at least another two months before they're able to do so.

Just three days before he was going to test his surgically-repaired left elbow, Hampton suffered a left oblique strain that certainly erases his availability for the start of the regular season and likely from the Braves' rotation through at least mid-May.

"This is going to set him back quite a ways," said Braves manager Bobby Cox of the oblique strain that Hampton suffered Wednesday while taking batting practice at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex.

When Cox went with the Braves to play the Tigers in Lakeland on Wednesday morning, he was feeling very optimistic about Hampton's chances of being ready for the start of the regular season. The veteran left-hander, who hasn't pitched since having Tommy John elbow surgery 17 months ago, had produced two consecutive encouraging bullpen sessions and was set to pitch an inning against the Blue Jays on Saturday.

But all of this encouragement and optimism was erased when Hampton took the painful swing that felled him Wednesday. With his left elbow still feeling strong, he was now faced to feel the effects of this painful and debilitating oblique strain.

"I was pretty upset about it yesterday," Hampton said Thursday. "Then I went through a little time of sulking, and now, well, there is nothing you can do about it now except just try to get it healed up and get it better. I guess the only silver lining is that my elbow gets a little more time to rest."

How much extra time Hampton gets to rest his elbow remains unknown. All current indications are that he won't be able to play catch for the next month. If this best-case scenario proves true, he'd likely still need at least another month to prepare for his first regular-season start.

"He was just getting his arm strength completely back to normal," Cox said. "Now he's not going to be able to throw at all."

Barring any setbacks and assuming that it will take just a month for the oblique muscle to heal, the middle portion of May seems to be the earliest that Hampton would be able to join the Braves' rotation.

"I don't know how long these things take to recover," Hampton said. "I've never done it before. I've heard anything from four weeks to six or eight weeks. I know I pulled it pretty bad and it's pretty sore. We'll just have to take it day-by-day."

Early Thursday morning, Hampton found that X-rays proved that he hadn't suffered a broken rib, like he originally feared. But one Braves official indicated that a broken bone might have actually healed faster and been less of a nagging injury than the oblique strain.

"Whenever I come back, I want to make sure it's completely healthy," Hampton said. "I want to be back for the long haul."

Tim Hudson and Chipper Jones have first-hand knowledge of the painful and lingering effects of an oblique strain. The ailment caused Jones to make two trips to the disabled list after the All-Star break in 2006.

"He's going through a lot of what I went through the last couple of years," said Jones, who has battled various injuries during the past two seasons. "He can't catch a break, can't stay healthy."

Hampton hasn't made a start in full health since May 14, 2005. That night, while pitching at Dodger Stadium, he began feeling the discomfort that eventually forced him to undergo the ligament replacement procedure known as Tommy John surgery.

After missing all of 2006 while rehabbing, the 34-year-old Hampton came to this year's camp knowing that he was going to face some pitfalls. But after experiencing some highs and lows over the past two weeks, he had finally reached the point where he felt he was definitely ready to pitch in games.

"Trying to get over being upset is the toughest part, because I was ready to go," said Hampton, who was 15-2 with a 2.62 ERA in the 22 starts that preceded the beginning of his elbow problems.

Hampton's injury woes are beginning to be financially taxing to the Braves. Insurance covered most of his salary in 2006, but they are still responsible for the $19.5 million that he's owed over the final two years of the eight-year, $121 million contract he signed with the Rockies before the start of the 2001 season.

"For something like this to happen, it's pretty much like getting sand kicked in your face," Hampton said. "It is what it is. I've just got to do everything that I can to get back healthy. You never want to be labeled as one of those injury-prone guys."

With Hampton out for an undetermined amount of time, the Braves join the long list of teams looking to trade for starting pitchers. Lance Cormier and Kyle Davies were battling for the fifth spot in the starting rotation. As of now, it appears that they'll both begin the regular season in the rotation.

"We always have six guys ready," Cox said. "So Plan B is in effect."

As Cox spoke throughout Thursday morning, it was evident that he was attempting to remain optimistic. But it was also obvious that he wants the chance to utilize Plan A, the one that included a healthy Hampton.

"He was a big piece, and still is," Cox said. "But now it's going to be delayed somewhat. We'll pick it up until he gets back."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.