It will take some time before Hampton loses the tag of being an injury-prone pitcher. But during the early stages of a journey that he hopes leads him back to his previously successful form, he has already gained a reward that eases some of the pain and frustration the past three years have brought.
Looking like the successful pitcher that he was during the days that his body parts were cooperating, a determined Hampton helped the Braves gain an 11-4 win over the Giants at AT&T Park on Tuesday night and earned his first Major League victory in nearly three full years.
"It's just a great feeling," Hampton said. "After all I've been through, I've learned this is something you don't take for granted. There was always some doubt whether I'd get another one."
Hampton's first Major League victory since Aug. 14, 2005, energized a Braves clubhouse that was certainly thirsting for something like this to celebrate. For one night, they could enjoy the fact that one of their teammates had overcome multiple elbow surgeries and other ailments and proved that his future may include something more than just returns to the disabled list.
"It's big for them to see Mike get a win," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "It's been a long time. He certainly deserves it with all of the work that he's put in."
The tentativeness that was present in his previous two starts this season was replaced by the tenacity that he displayed before his elbow began to fail him in May 2005. While limiting the Giants to two earned runs and four hits in seven innings, he showed confidence and his patented sinker, which helped him record 13 groundouts.
During a bullpen session Monday, Hampton finally relocated his normal grip on his sinker, and during Tuesday's game he said it felt much different than it had five days earlier against the Cardinals.
"That was the old bulldog Hampton," Cox said. "He was on the attack."
Although he might not have been as impressive as he was while going 15-2 with a 2.61 ERA in the 22 starts he made before his elbow became a problem, Hampton at least felt like his former self. Braves outfielders recorded just three of his 21 outs and his only damaging mistake came when Fred Lewis began the seventh inning with a homer.
Determined to finish strong, Hampton retired the next three batters after Lewis' homer. This was the first time the 35-year-old southpaw pitched more than five innings since he tossed a two-hit shutout against the Astros on May 9, 2005.
"That's as close as I have been to feeling normal in a long time," Hampton said. "I wouldn't say everything was working. But that was pretty close."
When three-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann made his Major League debut, Hampton was just one month into his three-year struggle. The veteran hurler missed the entire 2006 season recovering from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery and the 2007 season while recovering from a surgical procedure that fixed a damaged tendon in his elbow.
This year's attempted returns were delayed by a strained pectoral muscle and minor groin strains. When Hampton returned to the Majors to face the Phillies on July 26, he was tentative. Last week against the Cardinals, he began to gain the comfort that was fully present Tuesday night.
"He had it going tonight," McCann said. "All of his pitches were working. Tonight ranks up there with me with the first times I got to catch [John] Smoltz and [Tom] Glavine. Tonight was special."
Proving he hasn't lost the skills that enabled him to win four National League Silver Slugger Awards, Hampton keyed a three-run fifth inning with an RBI double off the left-center-field wall against Jonathan Sanchez. His two-out double was sandwiched between those hit by Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson, who enjoyed a three-hit night.
The Braves produced a three-run seventh inning and then saw Jeff Bennett surrender two runs while recording just one out in the eighth inning. Bennett's struggles cut the Giants' deficit to two runs and had Hampton wondering if he'd have to wait even longer before realizing this win.
But a five-run ninth inning, keyed by doubles from Casey Kotchman and Omar Infante, allowed Hampton to once again breathe easy and prepare to celebrate this long-awaited moment.
"What he's gone through for the past three years, you wouldn't wish on anybody," McCann said. "This just shows you the kind of guy he is. He put in all of that rehab and he works out harder than anybody. Tonight he got to enjoy all of that work."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less