Saving grace
Braves bullpen rebounds after collapse

ATLANTA - There's only one blemish on the Atlanta Braves' season through six games, but it was ugly.

The Braves were only nine outs away from completing a three-game sweep at Philadelphia to open the season before Blaine Boyer, Peter Moylan and the bullpen blew a 10-3 lead in the seventh inning of a 12-11 loss on Wednesday. Relievers combined for five walks and a hit batter in the disastrous inning, and suddenly there was cause to revisit a major concern entering the season.

The three relievers at the back of the bullpen are coming off major elbow surgeries the last two years. Closer Mike Gonzalez is entering his first full season since elbow ligament-replacement surgery in 2007. Moylan had his ligament-replacement surgery last May, and Soriano had ulnar nerve transposition and a small bone spur removed from his right elbow last August.

The Braves hope a rebuilt rotation will put less strain on a bullpen which finished third in the majors in innings pitched last year, but Wednesday's meltdown in Philadelphia left reason to question if any lead would be safe.

The bullpen provided encouraging answers in a three-game sweep of Washington which left the Braves, who were off Monday, 5-1 entering tonight's opener of a home series against Florida.

On Saturday, Moylan struck out the side in the seventh on 12 pitches. On Sunday, Soriano pitched a perfect ninth for his first save. Gonzalez pitched back-to-back days, giving up a run to blow his first save opportunity in Atlanta's 10-inning win on Friday night before striking out two in the ninth to earn the save on Saturday.

Perhaps the best news was Soriano's performance on Sunday, giving the team the needed affirmation there was more than one ninth-inning option.

Braves manager Bobby Cox wanted to rest both Moylan and Gonzalez on Sunday, and Soriano came through with a dominant save.

"I think Soriano is getting back," Cox said. "He's really looking good."

Soriano had more health worries than the other relievers this spring. He battled an upper respiratory infection and a strained side. He appeared in only 14 games in 2008 while making three trips to the disabled list before the season-ending surgery.

Soriano says he's not yet at full strength, but he says the elbow pain that was so persistent last year is gone.

"I don't feel nothing today," he said Sunday.

"I feel better because last year ... I only throw the ball so-so because my arm feels sore and I try to do the best I can and nothing happens. This year I feel good. ... I feel very good. I feel not 100 percent, but I can be in the game."

Soriano has walked two and given up only one hit in four games. He has five strikeouts in four innings.