Graham grateful to be back on mound

About this time a year ago, right-hander J.R. Graham was hitting triple digits on the radar gun against the Tigers at Joker Marchant Stadium, opening eyes as to just what kind of pitching prospect the Braves had on the cusp of the major leagues.

This time around, in his second major league camp, Graham’s expectations are a little more tempered. He is eight months removed from suffering a season-ending shoulder injury at Double-A Mississippi.

So when the Braves faced the Tigers for the first time this spring, Graham had a lot more perspective and a little compassion. Tigers non-roster invitee Eduardo Sanchez had to leave Wednesday’s game against the Braves after only four pitches, after suffering what was diagnosed as a stress fracture in his elbow.

“It just kind of hit home with what happened with me, like flashbacks,” Graham said. “I know that feeling coming off the mound. Everything can change.”

When Graham took the mound for the first time Friday night against the Astros, his fastball wasn’t as electric — more low 90s than high — and he gave up two doubles on balls up in the strike zone. He gave up three runs while recording two outs.

But for his first game action since May 13, Graham was excited.

“I felt a little rusty, not really in game form,” he said. “But there was a lot to build on. I felt confident out there pitching. I was sore the next day — I could tell I threw — but nothing hurt. I could still play catch the next day.”

As for his velocity, Graham said he wasn’t watching the radar gun. And that’s not one of his big concerns.

“I think I can get back and get it if I need to, but I’m not testing the waters,” Graham said. “But I feel like it was coming out good.”

Upton returns: Justin Upton got his first action of spring Sunday in Kissimmee, going 0-for-1 with a walk in a split-squad game against the Astros. Upton was scratched from the Braves' Grapefruit League opener with a sore muscle in his right side and missed the first four games of spring training. His brother B.J. Upton got his first hit and RBI of the spring, a double off the left-field wall in the Braves' 7-4 loss Sunday.

Tommy La Stella had his second consecutive multihit game, going 2-for-4. David Hale went two innings in his first start of spring, giving up two runs (one earned).

Back at Braves camp, in the other split-squad game, the Braves were shut out for 10 innings against the Tigers in a 0-0 game called by umpires after one extra inning, with both teams out of relievers. This came one day after the Braves piled up 25 hits in a 16-15 loss to the Nationals at Viera.

It was a step in the right direction for the Braves though, who have lost five games this spring and tied one.

“It was a better-played game today than we’ve had the past couple days, and that was good to see,” said Braves bench coach Carlos Tosca, who managed the squad at Disney.

Gerald Laird said Sunday his back is improving, but he is still experiencing some tightness that likely will keep him out a few more days. He suffered back spasms swinging in the first inning of Thursday’s game in Lakeland.

Jonny Venters is scheduled to throw off the mound Wednesday for the first time since undergoing Tommy John surgery in June. This is the next step in a year-long progression that he hopes will have him back in action by May or June.

Cuban catcher: The Braves are closing in on a minor league deal with Cuban catcher Yenier Bello, as first reported by Bello, 29, was cleared to sign in late January after defecting from Cuba following the 2011 season. He's known for his power potential and hit .274 with 13 home runs over a 90-game schedule in his final season for Cuba's La Serie Nacional.

The Braves don’t have immediate major league needs at catcher, with three catchers expected to break camp on their major league roster. Evan Gattis is slated as the starter, with Laird his primary backup, and Ryan Doumit available as a third catcher. The Braves also have Christian Bethancourt, one of their top prospects, waiting in the wings as their potential catcher of the future.