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Braves closer ready to go
Atlanta Braves pitcher Mike Gonzalez throws during a spring training workout Sunday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. - photo by David J. Phillip

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Mike Gonzalez feels 22 again. He’s lost a few pounds. His left arm is strong and limber. And there’s not a lick of pain to mess things up.

It’s time to show the Atlanta Braves what they thought they were getting two years ago: one of baseball’s most dominant relievers.

Gonzo is ready to go gonzo.

"Man, it’s been a few years since I felt the way I do now," he said Monday, having just arrived at his locker for the second workout of spring training. "I feel crispy. I lost 10 or 12 pounds. I feel really good. I feel agile."

The Braves are mostly concerned with his left arm, which broke down not long after the Braves acquired him from Pittsburgh in the winter of 2007. The previous year, Gonzalez converted all 24 of his save chances in a breakout season for the lowly Pirates, with 64 strikeouts in 54 innings. But his elbow began hurting, so he shut it down for the final month.

Gonzalez got a clean bill of health before the trade to Atlanta, but it quickly became apparent he was still hurting. He pitched in only 18 games before doctors discovered a torn ligament in his elbow. He underwent the dreaded Tommy John operation, which generally requires at least a year to come back from.

"It’s one of those things where you go out there and try to grind through," Gonzalez recalled. "Obviously, I went as far as I could. But you can’t compete at 80 mph when you’re used to being a guy who throws 90-plus."

While Gonzalez returned on schedule in July 2008, he wasn’t quite himself. There were nagging doubts about his health, the sort that plague every player coming back from that first major injury. Each time he felt a little ache, he wondered if his elbow had broken down again. There was even some moments of fear, which simply can’t be a part of a closer’s mindset.

"You don’t really understand your body for the first few months because you’ve never gone through it," Gonzalez said. "A couple of times you go out there and throw and say ‘Ohhhhhh, did I hurt that again?’ That’s part of the process of breaking the scar tissue. But those are things you’ve never done before."

He did have 14 saves, but his ERA (4.28) was unacceptable for a closer. While showing flashes of his old dominance with 44 strikeouts, he gave up six homers in 33 2-3 innings. Compare that with his last season in Pittsburgh, when he surrendered just one homer and pitched far more innings.

Now, there’s no excuses. Gonzalez, 30, had a full year to recover from the surgery. He pitched 36 games last season, more than enough to work through any lingering issues. He had the whole offseason to get in the best shape of his career.

"I always felt the only issue for me was my health," he said. "I’m 100 percent now. I don’t see any reason I’m not going to go out there and dominate."

That’s what the Braves want to hear. A rash of injuries to the pitching staff sent them spiraling to their worst season since 1990, far behind the World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East.

Determined to avoid a repeat, the Braves acquired three durable starters — Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez and Japanese all-star Kenshin Kawakami. Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan, both coming off season-ending surgeries, are expected to handle setup duties once they’re fully recovered. That leaves the ninth inning.

Gonzo Time.

"I don’t think Atlanta has gotten to see the full Gonzo yet," outfielder Jeff Francoeur said. "Even though he came back last year and was doing good, he was not the full Gonzo."

Chipper Jones, the NL’s reigning batting champ, remembers what it was like to stand at the plate against the full Gonzo.

"He’s no fun to face," Jones said. "He’s got an outstanding fastball and an outstanding slider. And he’s got the mentality to be a closer. He’s a bulldog out there. He’s a go-getter. He’s got everything you want in a closer."

The Braves need to look no farther than New York to recognize the value of a reliable closer. When Billy Wagner went down, the Mets collapsed in the NL East race. They not only finished behind Philadelphia — they missed out on a wild-card spot that looked like a lock.

"They’re probably in the playoffs last year if they had a closer," Francoeur said. "And they didn’t have one. Ten or 15 years ago, it wasn’t that big a deal. Pitchers were going eight or nine innings all the time. Now, that dominant closer is the way to go."

The Braves have struggled to find one since John Smoltz — who had 144 saves from 2002-04 — went back to starting games instead of finishing them. Chris Reitsma. Dan Kolb. Bob Wickman. They’ve all come and gone.

"It’s a good feeling for a team to have a guy they know is going to get three outs in the ninth inning and lock it up," manager Bobby Cox said.

Gonzalez believes he’ll be that guy.

"I feel like I have a brand new arm," he said. "I feel like I’m 22 again. I’m ready to go."

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