The trademark cocky smirk he displayed as he jogged back toward to dugout spoke volumes about the unexpected excitement he and the Braves have gained over the past five days.
When Hampton strained his left oblique muscle during batting practice on March 7, there was reason to believe he wouldn't even pick up a baseball for another month. But here he was exactly two weeks later, completing a 10-minute, 50-pitch bullpen session that provided no discomfort to his oblique or surgically-repaired left elbow.
"It felt pretty darn good," Hampton said. "I threw at about 90 percent and I didn't have any strains, pulls or nothing."
After watching Hampton's full side session, Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell traveled to Viera for Wednesday night's game against the Nationals. When he arrived he let Braves manager Bobby Cox know that the southpaw showed no signs that he's experiencing any limitations or rust.
"He was very impressive," McDowell said. "It was like he hadn't skipped a beat."
It's still too early to accurately project when Hampton might be able to join the Atlanta rotation. He'll throw another bullpen session on Saturday, and if all goes well, he could begin his rehab assignment during the first week of April.
Because he still hasn't pitched in a game since his left elbow was repaired with Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery 18 months ago, Hampton will still likely need to make at least five Minor League rehab starts. But with that being the case, there's still a chance he could rejoin the Atlanta rotation during the first week of May.
"I don't want to put a date on it," Hampton said. "I just hope that it keeps progressing the way that it's progressing. Just the way it's progressing, I can see me being at least two weeks ahead of where I thought I'd be."
Hampton's oblique strain couldn't have come at a worse time. After weeks of battling the inconsistencies that all pitchers experience after undergoing Tommy John surgery, he'd finally reached a point where he'd been cleared to pitch in a game. But three days before he was to pitch in his first game since Aug. 19, 2005, Hampton found himself felled by a batting practice swing. In the days that followed, he truly believed there was a chance that he wouldn't pitch for Atlanta again until June.
"While I was throwing today, I felt like I was kind of where I was before I hurt my oblique," Hampton said.
Hampton believes his quick progress may have something to do with the fact that he injured his left oblique. Most pitchers suffer their oblique strains on the opposite side of their throwing arm.
Because he's forced to rotate both sides of his torso with his delivery, the Braves' medical staff isn't sure if this belief has much merit. Like every member of the organization, they are just happy that he's experienced this unexpectedly fast progress.
While he hasn't yet suffered any setbacks while pitching, Hampton understands that it might be a while before the Braves let him swing a bat. Given that he won five Silver Slugger Awards from 1999-2003, the veteran hurler may experience a few at-bats that require him to swallow his pride.
"I don't know if they'll let me [swing] until the All-Star break," Hampton joked. "I'm just going to have to slap it and run. I'll just have to put on a late-season surge to get my Silver Slugger Award back."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less