Braves close exhibitions with sell-out in Gwinnett

Legendary former manager Bobby Cox was back in uniform and spikes for the first time since tipping his cap on the final day of the 2010 postseason, and club president John Schuerholz led a record Coolray Field crowd of 10,568 in “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.”

Rain was about the only thing that dampened the mood of the evening after the game was called in the seventh inning, with the Braves leading a “Futures” team of Braves minor league prospects, 4-3.

“I’ve been begging him for two spring trainings now to get him in uniform,” Braves manager and Cox protégé Fredi Gonzalez said. “Hopefully this is not the last time.”

Word was Cox had given a rousing clubhouse speech to the minor leaguers, and it showed as they took a 3-1 lead on the major leaguers.

But three consecutive extra-base hits by Michael Bourn, Martin Prado and Brian McCann in a three-run fifth got Gonzalez and the Braves the win.

“Bobby, I’m sorry,” Prado said in a hallway outside the Gwinnett clubhouse where Cox and Gonzalez met to shake hands and chat.

Dan Uggla had the game’s signature moment, with a home run over the left-field retaining wall and off the top of a tent beyond it. But that 3-2 change-up is about all Sean Gilmartin had to feel bad about, as the Braves’ 2011 first-round draft pick retired each of the other six batters he faced.

“I was proud of our guys,” Cox said. “They played very well and they held their own. We threw some great arms out there. Gilmartin looked really good. We’ve got a lot to look forward to, with some of the pitching especially.”

It was a feel-good day for the Braves, who saw Livan Hernandez debut with a scoreless inning, signed reliever Chad Durbin to round out their roster and got good news from Chipper Jones, who thinks he has a chance to return before his original target of April 13.

The Braves signed Durbin to a one-year contract, believed to be for about $900,000, to round out their bullpen with a veteran right-hander. They re-assigned left-hander Yohan Flande to the minors.

Durbin, 34, was released by the Washington Nationals on Tuesday, losing out in a three-way battle for a bullpen spot against two pitchers who were already on the Nationals’ 40-man roster. He had a 2.35 ERA in 10 games this spring, allowing 21 hits in 15 1/3 innings, but only four earned runs. He walked three and struck out 15.

Durbin will join the Braves in New York on Wednesday.

“We felt like he was a great fit to fit in our bullpen,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said. “He’ll add depth to our middle relief. He’s pitched in that role and knows the league, knows the division.”

The Braves know the 12-year veteran well from the three years he spent with the Phillies in 2008-10, and they appreciate having another reliever with his experience. Flande, 26, has never pitched at the major league level.

“When somebody comes in the game, we know they’re going to finish that inning no matter what happens,” catcher David Ross said. “... Young guys may be looking in the dugout. We’ve got a lot of good young pitchers in camp, a lot of good talent, but you can always use experience.”

The Braves look forward to getting Jones’ experience back in the lineup. Eight days removed from arthroscopic knee surgery, he took his first batting practice and felt good enough to believe he might return sooner than expected.

He and the Braves have been projecting his return for the home opener against the Brewers, but after taking nearly 60 swings pain-free Tuesday, Jones thinks he might return sooner.

“Aiming for [April 13], but optimistic that it might be a little sooner than that,” Jones said. “We’ll just have to see how the next week goes.”

Jones will travel with the Braves to New York and begin to intensify his work in the field after taking 20 ground balls Tuesday.

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