Hampton has oblique injury, will miss start of season

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Mike Hampton's comeback took a major
blow. And, no, it has nothing to do with his reconstructed elbow.

The Atlanta Braves left-hander injured his left side during
batting practice, of all things, and won't be ready for the start
of the regular season.

Hampton, starting the seventh season of a $121 million,
eight-year contract, will miss the rest of spring training and
could be out as long as two months. The Braves had been counting on
him to bolster a rotation that includes John Smoltz, Tim Hudson and Chuck James.

"I think I pulled it pretty bad," Hampton said Thursday.
"There's nothing you can do about it now except try to get it
healed up and get it better."

Hampton was taking batting practice Wednesday at the Braves'
complex while the team was playing the Detroit Tigers in nearby
Lakeland. He fell to the ground in pain after a swing, prompting
fears that he broke a rib.

X-rays were negative and team doctors determined that he
strained his left oblique, still a serious injury for a pitcher.

Hampton, who missed all of last season after elbow surgery,
already was coming along slower than expected. Now, he isn't likely
to return to the majors before May.

"I've heard anything from four weeks to six to eight weeks,"
Hampton said.

The 34-year-old pitcher was expected to make his spring training
debut on Saturday with one inning against the Toronto Blue Jays.

"I guess I can officially say sand has been kicked in my
face," he said. "I guess the only silver lining is my elbow will
get a little more time to rest."

Hampton went 5-3 in 12 starts for the Braves in 2005, struggling
much of the season with a sore elbow that finally required major
surgery. His best season was in 1999, when he went 22-4 with the
Houston Astros.

He signed a huge contract with the Colorado Rockies, but
struggled in the thin air of Denver. Hampton was traded to the
Braves after the 2002 season, getting his career back on track with
two solid seasons before he blew out his elbow.

Without Hampton, Kyle Davies and Lance Cormier are expected to
fill the last two spots in the rotation.

"We always have a 'Plan B' going," manager Bobby Cox said.
"We always have six guys ready to start. They will be ready."

Hampton is 53-48 since agreeing to the big contract with
Colorado after the 2000 season. He is owed $14.5 million this year
and $15 million in 2008, and a $6 million buyout of a 2009 option.