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Cox impressed as 'pen rounds into form

Cox impressed as 'pen rounds into form

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- While the box score might indicate that they struggled in Tuesday afternoon's 7-6 loss to the Mets at Tradition Field, Braves relievers Billy Wagner, Scott Proctor and Jonny Venters all actually produced outings that seemed to impress their always-optimistic manager Bobby Cox.

Making his final preparations before assuming his role as Atlanta's closer, Wagner surrendered a pair of unearned seventh-inning runs that were aided by the single and walk the Mets tallied against him. Before ending his one-inning stint with his second strikeout, the veteran left-hander saw two runs score courtesy of David Ross' errant pickoff attempt that sailed into left field.

"Those are things you work on during the spring, picking guys off," Cox said when asked about Wagner, who has allowed one earned run in his past four appearances.

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While Wagner is 18 months removed from Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow, Proctor is just 10 1/2 months removed from the same surgical process, which often requires a pitcher to endure 12 months of rehab.

Proctor made a successful return to the mound with a perfect appearance against the Tigers on Friday night, and when he returned on Tuesday, he once again displayed the arm strength that gives the Braves reason to believe that he is ahead of schedule.

But after retiring the first two Mets he faced, Proctor issued three consecutive walks before allowing Mike Jacobs to tally a two-run single. Cox felt Proctor was squeezed by plate umpire Bruce Dreckman while walking Omir Santos -- the first of the three free passes.

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While appreciative of the support provided by his manager, Proctor said that it was his responsibility to adhere to Dreckman's strike zone.

"I've always prided myself on being better than that," Proctor said. "You can use 100 excuses. But the bottom line is you're a Major League pitcher, so you make the adjustment. I've just never been big on making excuses."

Proctor, who will return to the mound on Friday to face the Tigers again, seemed to be pretty pleased with this pain-free outing, during which he felt his breaking balls and changeup were crisper than they had been during his previous outing.

"I'm just continuing to build," Proctor said.

While Cox has said there is a chance that Proctor could be ready to be in the bullpen on Opening Day, general manager Frank Wren said the club will monitor the veteran reliever over the course of the next two weeks before determining whether it's in their best interest to bring him back just 11 months removed from Tommy John surgery.

"You're just always careful with those guys," Wren said. "You don't want to push them too fast, too early. If they need an extra week, we'll give that to him. We want him to be healthy for the long haul."

If Proctor begins the season on the disabled list, the Braves will have two available spots in their bullpen when they make their final roster decisions. One of those spots could be filled by the left-handed Venters, who didn't seem to hurt his cause while allowing the Mets one earned run in his one-inning appearance.

Venters issued a one-out walk to Jeff Francoeur and then surrendered an RBI triple to Gary Matthews before using the sinker that has caught Cox's attention to end the inning with consecutive groundouts.

Like he did while evaluating Wagner's performance, Cox said that Venters could have escaped without any damage had Dreckman been willing to call what the veteran manager deemed to be a low strike.

"I was impressed," Cox said. "With a guy like Venters, it doesn't matter who is in there. If his ball sinks right, he's going to get you out."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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