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Vazquez continues to impress


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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- It appears Javier Vazquez is ready to begin the regular season. The veteran right-hander threw 91 pitches during a strong effort against the Pirates on Tuesday night and drew more postgame praise from Braves manager Bobby Cox.

"He's looked outstanding every time out," Cox said. "In the [World Baseball Classic], he looked great. Every start here he's looked great. He's ready to go. You can't pitch any better than he's pitched."

During the 19 2/3 innings Vazquez has combined to complete between the Classic and two Grapefruit League starts, he's allowed three earned runs and surrendered 17 hits. In his past two outings, the 32-year-old right-hander has totaled 12 strikeouts.

"Earlier in Spring Training, results don't matter as much to me," said Vazquez, who ranked fourth in the American League with 200 strikeouts last season. "Results matter now at this point of Spring Training."

While facing the Pirates on Tuesday night, Vazquez felt he had trouble consistently locating his slider. The lone run he surrendered in 5 2/3 innings came in the third, when Ryan Doumit delivered a one-out single and scored on a Craig Monroe double that escaped a diving Chipper Jones and found its way into the left-field corner.

"He threw a lot of pitches," Jones said. "But he made pitches when he needed to."

The 91 pitches thrown by Vazquez were the most totaled by a Braves pitcher this spring. The right-hander, who was acquired in a December trade with the White Sox, is hoping to throw 100 pitches when he makes his next scheduled start Sunday against the Tigers.

While Vazquez's effort was impressive, the finest outing produced by a Braves pitcher Tuesday came during the morning hours, when Tommy Hanson tossed five no-hit innings against a group of Minor Leaguers in an intrasquad game.

"He didn't allow anything that even resembled a hit," Cox said.

Hanson, who is considered one of the game's top overall prospects, threw first-pitch strikes to 15 of the 21 batters he faced and recorded eight strikeouts. The 22-year-old right-hander is still expected to begin the season at Triple-A Gwinnett, but he's continued to give the Braves even more reason to wonder how soon they should bring him to Atlanta.

The roughest outing during Tuesday's 5-2 loss to the Pirates was provided by Jeff Bennett, who issued three walks and surrendered two runs in just two-thirds of an inning. While working the seventh inning, Bennett issued consecutive bases-loaded walks and committed a throwing error.

Some of the teams showing an interest in acquiring Bennett might be alarmed by his recent struggles. In his past four appearances, the right-handed reliever has totaled 3 1/3 innings, allowed seven earned runs and surrendered nine hits.

The most alarming outing of the night, however, came courtesy of Rafael Soriano, who labored before getting three Pirates to look at called third strikes. While striking out the side, the usually hard-throwing right-handed reliever was tossing fastballs that rested between 89-91 mph. Two of his strikeouts were recorded on slow curveballs that registered 79 mph.

All indications are that Soriano's right elbow, which was surgically repaired in August, is sound. But Cox seems somewhat concerned about the fact that the right-handed reliever is still battling some congestion problems, which are making it hard for him to breathe comfortably on the mound.

Soriano reported to camp with an upper respiratory infection and experienced limited action during the final two weeks of February. He didn't make his Grapefruit League debut until March 10, and Tuesday marked just his fourth appearance of the year.

"He's building arm strength right now," Cox said. "His fastball, even though it's just 90 [mph], is quick. He's got such a loose arm. He'll get his strength back with some more outings and be fine."

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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WOW dude is doing great.

i think he just went ahead of JJ in the rotation, anyone concur?

He has shown the talent to be a #1. I wouldn't care if he was #1, Lowe was #2, & JJ #3.

Could Vazquez be Comeback Play of the Year? I don't think he ever went away, but I could see him dominating under Bobby Cox

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