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Ozzie’s first game a successful step in his return from elbow injury

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Six months after he broke his right elbow swinging in a Double-A playoff game, Braves second-base prospect Ozzie Albies was back in the lineup for the first time Thursday for a Grapefruit League game that, on this day, felt a lot more important to him than others on the field at Champion Stadium.

“Yeah, I’m getting excited to get back in there today — it’s been a long time,” he said after returning from early-morning infield drills with third-base coach Ron Washington, five hours before the first pitch of a game against the New York Yankees at Champion Stadium.

Albies, 20, smiled when asked if he would need to contain his emotions. “I’m a little excited. Just happy to be back,” he said. “Just going to do my thing.”

That he did. Albies lined a single up the middle leading off the first inning, after getting behind in the count 2-0 to Yankees right-hander Michael Pineda. He played four innings in the 8-7 Braves loss, went 1-for-2 with a single and ground-out, and showed his speed scoring from first base on a Johan Camargo double.

Albies also turned an unassisted double play in the first inning on the first ground ball hit to him.

“It felt great to be back and get my knock (hit),” Albies said shortly after he was replaced before the fifth inning.

He showed no concern over the elbow, taking a mighty cut on a foul ball in his first at-bat before hitting a line drive up the middle.

“I took one (pitch), but after that I was like, I’m getting after it,” Albies said, adding that the hit “felt amazing.”

Braves manager Brian Snitker said, “He had a lot of different swings and seemed to be fine. Didn’t look like he was hesitant or protecting anything. He was letting it fly, so that’s good.”

The final clearance to play came Wednesday from Dr. James Andrews. “He just checked the X-ray, and he was happy,” Albies said. “He told me it healed up properly, so he gave me the OK to go.”

Rated as the No. 11 prospect in the sport by Baseball America, Albies won the Southern League batting title with a .321 average and .848 OPS in 82 games during two stints for Double-A Mississippi, and hit .248 with a .659 OPS in 59 midseason games for Triple-A Gwinnett. He was moved back to Double-A to work alongside shortstop Dansby Swanson, who later was called up by the Braves in August.

“It was awesome when we played together, turn some double plays,” Albies said. “It seems like we’re going to do some good stuff up in Atlanta — soon.”

Albies had a combined .292 average and .778 OPS with 49 extra-base hits (10 triples, six homers) and 30 stolen bases in 618 plate appearances in 2016, and the Braves would’ve had him compete for the starting second-base job in spring training if he’d not gotten injured.

The Braves didn’t want to rush Albies back after his injury and surgery, so they signed Braves signed veteran Sean Rodriguez in November to be the primary second baseman until Albies was ready. After Rodriguez had shoulder surgery for injuries from a Jan. 28 car accident, the Braves traded for former Gold Glove second baseman Brandon Phillips, 35, who’s in the final year of his contract and will handle second base for at least the first part of the season.

Albies spent more than four of the past six months at the Braves’ minor league and spring-training headquarters at ESPN Wide World of Sports, about half of that time spent just rehabbing and re-strengthening his arm, after three weeks of complete inactivity while it was in a cast. He was cleared to begin lifting weights in late November and did so during a four-week visit home to Curacao for Christmas.

A couple of weeks after returning to Florida he finally was cleared to begin doing some throwing and other light baseball activities in mid-January, four months after the injury and surgery.

“To come back in good shape, it was hard,” Albies said. “It was not easy, because when I had my arm in a cast, just sleeping, sitting around, eating. I got slow, it was painful when I started moving again. I was sore everywhere.”

The diminutive (5-foot-8) but powerfully built infielder was poised for a possible call-up with the Braves in September before the unusual injury, a fracture of the olecranon bone at the tip of the elbow. It’s far more common among pitchers than hitters, and there were not many case studies to compare Albies with, in terms of how soon he might return.

Then there was the matter of whether he would be able to move past any concern over the elbow when he began taking full swings again. The Braves were confident that the tough-minded player would be fine in that regard, and Albies confirmed as much Thursday when asked whether he got past the mental aspect of the injury. He took two rounds of batting practice against live pitching earlier this week.

“I wanted to be ready for spring, for now,” he said. “Because spring is amazing, it’s fun, good opportunity. I have a chance to make the team, so that was my goal, to be back as soon as possible.”

He’ll almost certainly start the season in the minors, but Albies aims to make his major league debut in 2017.

“That’s my goal,” he said. “I’m hoping, and I’m going for it.”

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