Hampton silencing critics this spring

Critics silenced by Hampton's strong spring

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Mike Hampton says this is exactly what he envisioned. While that might be debatable, there's no doubt his surprising March has been almost completely opposite of what his critics were expecting.

When Hampton arrived at Spring Training in February, he knew he was facing a world of doubt. Having missed two consecutive seasons recovering from separate elbow surgeries, some wondered if he'd even be strong enough to pitch this year.

Over the course of the past month, Hampton has been silencing many of those critics and against the Astros on Sunday afternoon at Disney's Champion Stadium, he provided a six-inning performance that can only enhance the excitement the Braves feel about having him back in their starting rotation.

"You couldn't ask for anything more," Braves manager Bobby Cox said after watching Hampton surrender just two earned runs and six hits while throwing 82 pitches in six innings. "He was just excellent today."

Hampton's only damage came courtesy of solo homers hit by Hunter Pence in Carlos Lee in the sixth inning.

Considering it was the first time he'd pitched past the fifth inning since tossing a complete game against the Astros on May 8, 2005, Hampton had the right to blame fatigue. But the veteran southpaw instead said he misplaced a sinker to Pence and threw a flat changeup to Lee.

"I still felt pretty strong that last inning," Hampton said. "I just made a couple of bad pitches there. But as a whole for six innings, I felt pretty comfortable."

With his patented sinker back in place, Hampton looks like the talented left-hander he was before needing to undergo Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in 2005.

"I keep asking, 'Are those changeups?'" Cox said. "But they're sinkers that just look like changeups because they go down so much."

While posting a 1.98 ERA in his four Grapefruit League starts, Hampton has never had any problems with his elbow. His only health-related issue came on March 7, when he left a start in the second inning because of some mild discomfort in his right groin.

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At the time, Hampton said it was simply fatigue and while staying on his regular schedule the rest of this month, he has proven this claim was likely true. The right hamstring he strained in November while pitching in the Mexican Winter League also appears healthy.

During Sunday afternoon's game, Hampton felt no discomfort while fielding his position or running out of the batter's box after hitting a fourth-inning grounder.

"I'm not by any means sprinting," Hampton said. "But I'm doing what I need to do. I feel like [my legs] are getting stronger each time out."

Hampton's final exhibition start will come Friday, when the Braves host the Indians at Turner Field. The 35-year-old southpaw is scheduled to throw approximately three innings and then will likely make his regular-season debut during the April 3 series finale against the Pirates.

It will be a good day for Hampton, and a surprising one for the many who doubted that he would be healthy when the season began.

"In a perfect world, this is kind of how I saw it happening," Hampton said. "I don't want to count my chickens before they hatch. But I feel good with where I'm at and being ready to go once the season starts."

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