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Hampton turns in another strong outing
Atlanta Braves pitcher Mike Hampton warms up before pitching to the Houston Astros in a spring training game Sunday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Hampton pitched six innings and gave up six hits and two runs. The Braves won 4-2. - photo by The Associated Press

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — This is exactly what Mike Hampton was hoping for this spring.

Coming back from two elbow injuries, the left-hander put together another solid start Sunday when he gave up two runs in six innings to help the Atlanta Braves beat Woody Williams and the Houston Astros 4-2.

"This is kind of how in a perfect world I saw it happening," Hampton said. "This is where I envisioned myself being and I’m glad so far this is how it’s happened."

Hampton hasn’t pitched in the major leagues since 2005, and some doubted if he’d even make it out of spring training. He hurt his hamstring in the first inning of his Mexican Winter League start and then strained his right groin in the second inning of his second spring start.

Since then, however, there have been no more setbacks. Hampton has a 1.98 ERA in four spring starts and appears to be a lock for the fourth spot in the rotation.

"He looks like he’s the Hampton of old," Houston manager Cecil Cooper said.

Hampton shut out Houston for five innings before giving up homers to Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee in the sixth.

"I still felt pretty strong that last inning," Hampton said. "I just made a couple bad pitches, but as a whole for six innings I felt pretty comfortable. ... I was definitely happy with the outcome."

The game was crucial for Williams, who was 0-2 with a 13.89 ERA this spring after giving up 19 hits and 14 runs in his previous two starts.

Williams rebounded by giving up six hits and three runs in six innings. He yielded three hits and three runs in the first inning but recovered after giving up a leadoff double to Corky Miller in the second.

"He was a lot crisper than he’s been in the past," Cooper said. "I’m not saying that’s all I needed to see, (but) he was much better today."

Williams said he doesn’t feel like he’s under any pressure.

"I don’t feel like I need to prove anything," he said. "I know that’s not probably their thought process, but I know how things go in the spring and I know how things usually go in the season."

Williams was 8-15 with a 5.27 ERA in 2007.

"With last year being disappointing and me feeling guilty for not doing my job the way I was capable of doing, there are more expectations put on me and more eyes on me," he said.

Williams gave up a first-pitch single to Mark Kotsay to open the game and walked Yunel Escobar on a 3-2 pitch. A grounder by Chipper Jones advanced the runners before Mark Teixeira hit a two-run single. Gregor Blanco added a run-scoring triple for a 3-0 lead.

Hampton’s strong spring is important for the rotation as manager Bobby Cox keeps a close eye on John Smoltz, who didn’t make his scheduled start Friday after feeling tightness in the back of his right shoulder. Smoltz hopes to throw on the side Monday.

"(Smoltz) had a smile this morning," Cox said. "That’s a good sign, I think."

Hampton is expected to follow Tim Hudson, Smoltz and Tom Glavine in the rotation. Jair Jurrjens, Chuck James and Jeff Bennett are competing for the fifth starter’s job.Notes: Astros LHP Wandy Rodriguez, recovering from a strained left oblique muscle, pitched in a Triple-A game. He allowed two hits and one earned run with three strikeouts in two innings. ... Cox said Smoltz might pitch in a "B" game this week to give Bennett a start. ... Atlanta’s Brian McCann hit his second homer, off Runelvys Hernandez in the seventh inning.

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