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Braves bullpen still has questions
Atlanta Braves closer Mike Gonzalez works in the ninth inning against the Seattle Mariners in a game last season in Atlanta. - photo by Jason Getz

ATLANTA — There's only one blemish on the Atlanta Braves' season through six games, but it was ugly.

The Braves were only nine outs away from completing a three-game sweep at Philadelphia to open the season before Blaine Boyer, Peter Moylan and the bullpen blew a 10-3 lead in the seventh inning of a 12-11 loss on Wednesday. Relievers combined for five walks and a hit batter in the disastrous inning, and suddenly there was cause to revisit a major concern entering the season.

The three relievers at the back of the bullpen are coming off major elbow surgeries the last two years. Closer Mike Gonzalez is entering his first full season since elbow ligament-replacement surgery in 2007. Moylan had his ligament-replacement surgery last May, and Soriano had ulnar nerve transposition and a small bone spur removed from his right elbow last August.

The Braves hope a rebuilt rotation will put less strain on a bullpen which finished third in the majors in innings pitched last year, but Wednesday's meltdown in Philadelphia left reason to question if any lead would be safe.

The bullpen provided encouraging answers in a three-game sweep of Washington which left the Braves, who were off on Monday, 5-1 entering tonight's opener of a home series against Florida.

On Saturday, Moylan struck out the side in the seventh on 12 pitches. On Sunday, Soriano pitched a perfect ninth for his first save. Gonzalez pitched back-to-back days, giving up a run to blow his first save opportunity in Atlanta's 10-inning win on Friday night before striking out two in the ninth to earn the save on Saturday.

Perhaps the best news was Soriano's performance on Sunday, giving the team the needed affirmation there was more than one ninth-inning option.

Braves manager Bobby Cox wanted to rest both Moylan and Gonzalez on Sunday, and Soriano came through with a dominant save.

"I think Soriano is getting back," Cox said. "He's really looking good."

Soriano had more health worries than the other relievers this spring. He battled an upper respiratory infection and a strained side. He appeared in only 14 games in 2008 while making three trips to the disabled list before the season-ending surgery.

Soriano says he's not yet at full strength, but he says the elbow pain that was so persistent last year is gone.

"I don't feel nothing today," he said Sunday.

"I feel better because last year ... I only throw the ball so-so because my arm feels sore and I try to do the best I can and nothing happens. This year I feel good. ... I feel very good. I feel not 100 percent, but I can be in the game."

Soriano has walked two and given up only one hit in four games. He has five strikeouts in four innings.

Chipper Jones, who drove in two runs in Sunday's 8-5 win over the Nationals, said it was important the bullpen demonstrate its depth early in the season.

"That's going to have to happen because Moylan's really not going on back-to-back days, Soriano just started going back-to-back days," Jones said. "We really worked Gonzo out pretty hard the first five games so he was probably inactive (Sunday). So it's good to have that depth down there and get those guys some experience in late-inning situations."

Cox has said he may use Soriano to close out some games even when Gonzalez is rested. The left-handed Gonzalez could be used in eighth innings to face tough left-handed batters.

"They can use me or Gonzo, it don't matter," Soriano said when asked about his first save. "To me, the important thing is to win. That's what I'm looking for. It doesn't matter what inning they're going to use me."

Atlanta's relievers worked 554 1-3 innings last season to trail only Texas and Pittsburgh.

Through six games, the Braves already have four relievers with four appearances: Soriano, Gonzalez, Jeff Bennett and left-hander Eric O'Flaherty.

The Braves are counting on offseason additions Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez and Kenshin Kawakami joining Jair Jurrjens to give the team at least four starters capable of pitching deep into games on a consistent basis.

Cox says his bullpen also may be deeper, especially with Kris Medlen and left-hander Boone Logan waiting in the minors.

"It's got a chance to be a really, really good pen," Cox said.

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