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Bennett's outing offers reminder

Bennett's outing offers reminder

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Coming into camp, Jeff Bennett was a legitimate candidate to be on the Braves' Opening Day roster. Now that he's regained the strength he lost earlier this month, it's evident he has reason to believe he'll be starting this season in Atlanta.

With John Smoltz questionable because of tightness in his right shoulder, the Braves seemingly have an even greater need to carry a pitcher capable of providing spot starts and occasional long relief.

While throwing three scoreless innings in a 6-3 loss to the Indians at Disney's Champion Stadium on Friday afternoon, Bennett at least reminded the Braves why he's quite capable of filling that role. He hasn't allowed a run in his past seven Grapefruit League innings and is providing reason to believe his late-season success with Triple-A Richmond last year wasn't a fluke.

"Bennett was just outstanding," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He got all ground balls and two strikeouts. Nobody hit the ball in the air, not once. That's who he is. He's a ground-ball guy that you can use anywhere in the bullpen, to spot start and stuff like that. He just had a fantastic day. You couldn't do any better than that."

And for the Braves, Bennett's performance couldn't have come at a better time. They gave him this start when they decided it would be best for Smoltz to rest his shoulder, which has been a little tight since his bullpen session Wednesday afternoon.

Smoltz and the Braves are seemingly confident he'll be ready at the start of the season. But even if Smoltz's right shoulder is healthy, Bennett could have an important role on a pitching staff that already has Mike Hampton providing an eternal question mark.

It was Smoltz who lobbied this winter for the Braves to have somebody in their bullpen who could spot-start and provide long relief. Based on what he saw at the end of last season, he nominated Bennett, who says he would gladly accept such a role.

"I told Bobby the other day that I just want to put on a Braves uniform," Bennett said. "I don't care if it's long relief, short relief, starting or whatever. Last year, playing in Richmond made me see that a little bit more."

Bennett filled various roles for Richmond last year and didn't become a regular part of the affiliate's rotation until August. But in the seven starts he made, including the playoffs, he went 4-1 with a 1.74 ERA. Then in eight starts in the Venezuelan Winter League, the 27-year-old right-hander went 3-2 with a 2.31 ERA.

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Bennett's candidacy for the final spot in the Braves' 2008 rotation took a hit when he was derailed momentarily by a sinus infection he got in late February. But he says he's regained his strength, and with the movement he's getting, it's apparent he still has the sinker that helped him so much last year.

"Guys like [Bennett], for me, are real valuable," Cox said.

Entering Friday, Bennett, Ryan Drese and Buddy Carlyle -- who is out of options -- all were considered candidates for one of the final roster spot. Drese fell out of the race a few hours later as he issued six walks, hit a batter and allowed six earned runs -- including the Indians' four-run fourth inning. He threw just 15 of his 48 pitches for strikes and once missed the strike zone with 13 consecutive pitches.

"I don't know what happened to Drese," Cox said. "His release point just got completely out of whack."

Bennett, who believed he was strong enough to go at least five innings on Friday, will make his final bid for a roster spot next week. For now, he has to sit back and wait with the confidence that he's done all that he can to be on the Opening Day roster.

"I'd like to have some security," Bennett said. "Hopefully we'll know in a couple of days. There's a lot of decisions to make before the start of the season."

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

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