Notes: Smoltz to go Opening Day

Notes: Smoltz the Opening Day starter, unofficially

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Braves manager Bobby Cox rarely officially announces his Opening Day starter. Instead, he'll sometimes simply confirm the obvious in the same manner that he did before Thursday afternoon's game against the Mets at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex.

When asked about John Smoltz being his Opening Day starter this year, Cox simply said, "It makes a lot of sense to me."

After Cox made the official announcement in an unofficial manner, Smoltz provided an ace-like effort. The veteran right-hander limited the Mets to one earned run and seven hits in six innings. Then he proceeded to confirm the Opening Day assignment in a more direct manner.

"I know it's different around here with how Bobby deals with it," Smoltz said. "You know that's where the starts go. So yeah, I'm looking forward to pitching that day game."

That day game will come on the afternoon of April 2, when the Braves open their season against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. This will be Smoltz's fourth Opening Day assignment, and he hopes it proves to be better than the one two years ago, when he allowed six earned runs in just 1 2/3 innings against the Marlins.

"I've never put any stock in [being named the No. 1 starter]," Smoltz said. "I've never really cared. That to me is just a number in the rotation and you're going to get 35 starts."

Smoltz was originally slated to pitch Friday's game against the Phillies in Clearwater. But instead of facing them twice within a span of 11 days, he chose to face the Mets twice within a span of 17 days.

Knowing that he'll likely be facing the Mets again on April 7 at Turner Field, Smoltz may have used a slightly different approach on Thursday afternoon. But while registering five strikeouts and 10 ground-ball outs, he displayed each of his five pitches, including his changeup with which he's quickly gained confidence.

"I gave up a couple of hits with [the changeup]," Smoltz said. "But it's a weapon now. It's no longer a pitch that I just go, 'Well, let me show it to them and then put it in the back of my mind.' As far as I'm concerned at this point, I have five pitches that I feel I can throw at any time. ... I'm going to get a lot of key outs with this [changeup]."

With Tuesday's game against the Tigers being his only remaining exhibition start, Smoltz appears to be prepping for another strong season. The veteran hurler, who will turn 40 in May, has allowed four earned runs, surrendered 18 hits and registered 17 strikeouts in 20 innings.

"I don't want to get carried away, but I've accomplished a lot of things that I've set out to do," Smoltz said.

Chipper returns: After missing five games while letting his sore right oblique muscle rest, Chipper Jones returned on Thursday and registered a double in his three at-bats. More importantly, he didn't feel any discomfort while swinging from both the right and left sides of the plate.

"He was fine both ways," Cox said. "It was real good to see."

Jones' sixth-inning ground-rule double in the 7-1 win over the Mets came from the right side of the plate. While batting left-handed against Aaron Sele in the first inning, the veteran third baseman hit a deep drive to right-center field.

Pena shines: The Braves believe Tony Pena would be a starting shortstop for many Major League teams, and after watching the young infielder drill a three-run homer off Mets closer Billy Wagner in Thursday's five-run seventh inning, there may be some other organizations gaining that same belief.

While hitting .342 (13-for-38) and slugging .500 during the Grapefruit League season, Pena has at least increased his interest on the trade market. If Rafael Furcal, who was carted off the field on Thursday with an ankle sprain, is forced to miss significant time, the Dodgers may be one of the teams who gain interest in Pena.

"He's had a terrific spring, hitting and fielding," Cox said. "He's done it all."

With Pena out of options, the Braves are looking to find a way to at least get some value for him. If they don't place and keep him on their 25-man roster, they could lose him via the waiver wire.

It looks like Willy Aybar's sore left hand will force him to begin the season on the disabled list. If that happens, there's a chance Pena could begin the season on Atlanta's Opening Day roster.

"We're going to make decisions when we make the decisions," Cox said. "I'd feel comfortable with Tony doing anything."

Another Brave drawing some trade interest from other teams is Oscar Villarreal, who improved a mediocre spring with a scoreless inning on Thursday. Villarreal's ability to serve as a long reliever, middle reliever and spot starter may make him too versatile for the Braves to move.

Hampton rebounds well: After completing his 10-minute bullpen session on Wednesday, Mike Hampton was anxious to see how his body reacted. Fortunately, when he awoke on Thursday, both his left elbow and previously-strained left oblique were providing him no discomfort.

Cox was happy with Hampton's body language and says the team will continue to monitor his progress over the next few days. The veteran left-hander, whose return from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery was delayed by the strained oblique he suffered two weeks ago, is hoping to make his first Minor League rehab start during the first few days of April.

Cox says that Hampton will likely need to make six rehab starts. With that being the case, the veteran left-hander could join the Atlanta rotation in early May.

Braves bits: Chuck James, Ryan Langerhans, Blaine Boyer, Edgar Renteria and Matt Diaz are all currently battling a virus that has them all feeling quite awful. ... The 11,591 fans who attended Thursday's game made up the largest crowd the Braves have drawn since moving to Disney in 1998. ... Right-handed reliever Phil Stockman was optioned to Triple-A Richmond on Thursday.

Coming up: Kyle Davies will oppose J.A. Happ in Friday afternoon's game against the Phillies in Clearwater. This will be the only time these National League East rivals meet during Spring Training. First pitch is scheduled for 1:05 ET.

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