ATLANTA — Mike Gonzalez believes his long comeback is nearing its end.
Gonzalez, recovering from ligament replacement surgery on his left elbow, plans to report to Triple-A Richmond on Sunday for one or two injury rehabilitation appearances. He hopes to come off the disabled list next week for his 2008 debut with the Atlanta Braves.
Gonzalez had the surgery on May 31, 2007. He said in spring training he was aiming for a May return, but the Braves have been cautious with the reliever who could return to a set-up role or possibly share saves opportunities with Rafael Soriano and Manny Acosta.
Gonzalez threw in the bullpen Friday before the Braves’ game against Philadelphia. He gave up no runs in four games in his rehab assignment at Double-A Mississippi. He gave up seven hits with no walks and no runs in five innings.
Gonzalez said this week’s news that would-be closer John Smoltz will have season-ending shoulder surgery next week did not influence his desire to come off the disabled list as soon as possible.
"The sense of urgency has been there since day one, no matter if Smoltz is hurt," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said the long comeback "feels like a lifetime."
"It’s the hardest thing I’ve had to do mentally," he said.
Gonzalez said he’s already comfortable with the velocity and has proved he can pitch on consecutive days. He said his main goal in Richmond will be to gain more confidence in his slider.
"I just have to make sure the slider is there when I need it for a strikeout pitch," he said.
Gonzalez recorded 24 saves for Pittsburgh in 2006. He was acquired by the Braves in the Jan. 19, 2007 trade that sent first baseman Adam LaRoche to Pittsburgh and was 2-0 with two saves and a 1.59 ERA in 18 games last season.
Norton says he can play
Greg Norton, held out of Thursday night’s game with a twisted left knee, said Friday he was available to play.
Norton wore a wrap on the knee, which he said he hurt in Wednesday’s game. He said he had "a little swelling" in the knee Thursday.
Welcome to Turner Field
Two of the Braves’ first three picks in Thursday’s opening day of the draft, pitchers Brett DeVall, a left-hander from Niceville (Fla.) High School, and Zeke Spruill, a right-hander from Kell High in Marietta, visited the clubhouse Friday afternoon and attended Friday night’s game.
DeVall was the team’s first pick and the 40th overall selection. Spruill was the team’s third pick.
The two were wide-eyed as the looked around the clubhouse and looked at Jeff Francoeur and a few other players at their lockers.
"It was pretty cool," DeVall said.
DeVall said he liked Smoltz but said his style more closely resembled Philadelphia Phillies ace Cole Hamels, also a left-hander.
The team’s emphasis on pitching continued Friday, when their first six picks were pitchers, including right-hander Paul Clemens of Louisburg College and left-hander Brett Oberholtzer of Seminole Community College.
In-state players drafted by the Braves Friday included: LHP Richard Sullivan, Savannah College of Arts and Design; OF Billy Burns, Walton High; RHP Mark Pope, Walton High; RHP Michael Palazzone, Lassiter High; OF Chris Sheehan, Georgia Southern; RHP Jason Stulz, Kell High; RHP Matthew Price, The Walker School in Marietta; RHP Berry Tanner, Ware County High; and RHP Taylor Hart, Madison County High.