Braves' Hampton has return delayed by setback

ATLANTA -- No one is making any guesses about Mike Hampton's next move after his latest injury.

Hampton, the Atlanta Braves left-hander, has 138 career wins and almost as many injuries. He hasn't pitched in the major leagues since Aug. 19, 2005. He hurt his left groin while pitching in a minor league rehab game with Double-A Mississippi on Wednesday.

He's had two major surgeries on his left elbow in the last three years and has sustained a long line of new injuries while trying to work his way back into pitching form.

What's next? Don't ask Hampton.

"I don't know anything anymore," he said Friday.

Don't ask manager Bobby Cox.

"Your guess is as good as mine," Cox said.

Hampton pitched only one inning in Mexico this winter before straining his hamstring when he slipped on the mound. He then strained his right groin in the second inning of his second spring training game.

He earned a spot as the No. 4 starter before straining his left pectoral muscle while warming up before his scheduled April 3 start in Atlanta. He aggravated the chest injury in the minor leagues before hurting his left groin this week.

The latest groin injury is not considered severe, but it was a bitter disappointment for Hampton.

"I wish I had a magic cure, a magic pill that I could swallow," Hampton said of his desire to remain healthy. "I wouldn't sell my soul to the devil, but I'd get pretty close."

Hampton is 53-48 with a 4.80 ERA in 134 starts since signing a $121 million, eight-year contract with Colorado before the 2001 season.

"I've had so many setbacks and so many obstacles to overcome, I basically just take it day to day," he said. "I don't know what the future holds. But I've prepared myself every day to get on a big league mound and help this team win. Whether that happens, I don't know.

"I don't look too far down the road. I've done that before and it kind of bit me in the tail."

Hampton says he "stretches more than anybody I know" to try to avoid injuries.

"He's been [trying]," Cox said. "You can't ask for anything more."

The Braves believe Hampton's left arm is ready for the major leagues if only the rest of his body will allow him to pitch.

"My arm is big league ready," Hampton said. "I know that for a fact."

If not for Wednesday's injury, Hampton's next start might have been with Atlanta.

"He was up to 90 pitches," Cox said. "He's ready to go, arm-wise."

Hampton was 13-9 with a 4.28 ERA with Atlanta in 2004, his last full season. He was 5-3 with a 3.50 ERA in 12 starts for the Braves in 2005 before sustaining the injury which led to the Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery.

Hampton missed the 2006 season recovering the surgery and opened the 2007 season on the disabled list with a left oblique injury. He then learned he had a torn flexor tendon in his left elbow, leading to another season-ending surgery.

"I can honestly look myself in the mirror and know that I've done everything I possibly can to get back," he said. "Whether that happens or doesn't, it's not going to define who I am. I know I've done what it takes to get here and be successful."