Hampton healing ahead of schedule

Hampton progressing ahead of schedule

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- If things continue to progress as well as they have over the past couple of days, Mike Hampton could return to the mound much earlier than originally expected.

Encouraged by the lack of discomfort he's recently felt in his strained left oblique muscle, Hampton opted to play catch on Saturday morning at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex.

When he suffered the oblique strain while taking batting practice on March 7, the Braves believed it would be at least a month before he began throwing again.

"It went pretty good," said Hampton of the 10-minute session, during which he threw from a distance of approximately 90 feet. "I didn't really let it get loose. But for the first time throwing, that was enouraging."

Because he hasn't thrown in a game since having Tommy John elbow surgery 17 months ago, it's still far too early to accurately project when he might rejoin Atlanta's starting rotation. But just seeing him begin throwing a few weeks earlier than expected was definitely a welcome sight for Braves manager Bobby Cox.

"I was totally shocked," Cox said. "I didn't expect this for another two weeks."

When Hampton suffered this setback, the Braves immediately felt that he'd be out for at least two months. Initial projections were that his earliest possible return to the Atlanta rotation would come during the middle portion of May.

But as it stands now, there's at least a chance that the veteran southpaw could be ready to pitch at the beginning of May.

Hampton plans to play catch again on Sunday and could begin throwing live batting practice by the end of next week. From there, it will be determined when he will make the first of the five starts he needs to make before making a regular-season appearance.

"I've got to be smart about it," Hampton said. "The key for me is to keep from thinking that everything is great and then go out there and set myself back another two or three weeks."

Hampton's early progression could be a product of the fact that he's a left-handed pitcher whose oblique strain is on the left side. Most pitchers affected by the ailment suffer strains on the opposite side from their throwing arm.

When a pitcher finishes his delivery, he pull his body through using the strength of the oblique muscle located on the opposite side of his body.

"It's definitely better being that it's not his pull side," said Braves veteran right-hander Tim Hudson, who saw left oblique strains place him on the disabled list during both the 2004 and '05 seasons.

While the left oblique may provide less of a problem from a pitching perspective, it will definitely have a negative effect from an offensive standpoint for the right-handed-hitting Hampton, who has hit each of his 15 career homers in his past 292 at-bats.

"I don't imagine he's going to be hitting too many homers this year," Hudson said.

When Hampton suffered the setback, he sought consultation from Hudson and Woody Williams, another veteran hurler who has been bothered by an oblique strain. Based on the discomfort he was feeling, Hampton didn't raise an eyebrow when both told him it could take at least a month before he could begin throwing again.

"After the first two days, I thought I'd have been better off being shot," Hampton said.

But after getting off an exercise bike on Wednesday, an eager Hampton grabbed a weighted ball, mimicked his delivery and felt no discomfort.

"I was like, 'Dude, I think I can throw,'" said Hampton, who hasn't appeared in a game since Aug. 19, 2005.

Hampton's progression is just the latest of many positive developments that have occurred since he suffered the oblique injury. To account for his absence, the Braves found themselves forced to make the seemingly-wise decision to sign veteran Mark Redman.

In addition, while battling for the final available rotation spot, both Lance Cormier and Kyle Davies have given the Braves confidence that they can be effective starters at the Major League level.

When Hampton finally rejoins the Atlanta rotation, Davies and Cormier could both find themselves in Richmond. But coming off last year's disappointing season in which inexperienced pitchers proved to be a detriment, sending both of these talented right-handers to the Minors would be an option that they'll gladly accept.

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