Hudson throws four innings at Triple-A

LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. -- Bobby Cox shrugged last week when asked how he would find room for Tim Hudson on the Atlanta Braves pitching staff.

"Those things always work out," Cox said.

Hudson was the ace of the Braves' staff before his season-ending elbow ligament-replacement surgery on Aug. 8, 2008. Almost a full year later, the right-hander moved closer to his return to the majors when he pitched four scoreless innings Monday night for Triple-A Gwinnett against Lehigh Valley.

Hudson gave up one hit in each of his four innings but did not walk a batter in his third injury rehabilitation appearance. He threw only 41 pitches, 27 for strikes.

"Everything felt good," Hudson said. "I was supposed to go four innings or 60 pitches. The main thing was sitting down between innings and see how it responds. Everything went all right."

Hudson, 11-7 with a 3.17 ERA at the time of his 2008 injury, would be a valuable second-half addition to any pitching staff if healthy. But the Braves, third in the majors with a 3.72 ERA, already have a deep rotation.

Rookie Tommy Hanson has won five of his first six decisions, adding depth to a staff that also includes Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez, Jair Jurrjens and Kenshin Kawakami.

That's five starting pitchers without Hudson.

"As of right now I don't think they need me too much," said Hudson, who said he doesn't feel the need to rush his rehabilitation schedule.

Where will Hudson fit in? There's no obvious answer unless general manager Frank Wren and Cox plan to move a starter to the bullpen.

"Obviously we have a lot of great pitchers on our club," Hudson said Monday night. "Hopefully I fit in there somewhere.

"I have no idea what's going to happen. I just know what I need to do to get ready. I can only control what's placed in front of me," he said.

Wren has indicated he feels no pressure to make another trade before the July 31 non-waiver deadline.

"We like our club the way we're situated right now," Wren said last week. "We like the balance we have in our lineup. We've liked our pitching, really, from the beginning. We're observing and if there's ways to improve, we'll at least look at them. But right now we like our club."

Wren has already made two significant first-half trades to boost the Braves' outfield. He acquired outfielder Nate McLouth from the Pittsburgh Pirates before trading Jeff Francoeur to the New York Mets for Ryan Church on July 10.

The Braves, who are 8-3 since the All-Star break, were off on Monday. They trailed the NL wild-card leading Colorado Rockies by 3½ games and the NL East-leading Philadelphia Phillies by 6½ games entering Monday's schedule.

The Braves may need bullpen help for their playoff push. They have three of seven relievers in the National League with at least 50 appearances: Peter Moylan, 55; Eric O'Flaherty, 51; and Mike Gonzalez, 50.

The trades for Church and McLouth, combined with the emergence of second baseman Martin Prado as a starter and No. 2 hitter, have sparked the offense.

Prado is hitting .315. Shortstop Yunel Escobar, the former No. 2 hitter who now hits fifth or sixth, already has a career-high 11 homers and leads the team with 58 RBIs.

"I think up and down our lineup we're getting more and more quality at-bats, which we think will translate into more runs and obviously more wins," Wren said. "That's been the area that's held us back some."

Wren said his satisfaction with his current roster "doesn't keep you from inquiring and seeing if there are other things we can do."

"It's always a fine balance when you look at your team and talk to Bobby and the coaches and players," he said. "There's a certain feeling and chemistry that every team has and when you feel like you've reached that right balance, you're hesitant to make changes."

Hudson may make three more appearances with Gwinnett. He said he plans to pitch five innings in his next start, possibly on Friday.

He gave up three earned runs in 4 2/3 innings in two appearances with Class A Myrtle Beach before making the move to Gwinnett.