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In dead of winter, baseball right around corner

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In dead of winter, baseball right around corner

ATLANTA (AP) Play ball!

On a frosty winter day, the Atlanta Braves started getting ready for the rites of spring - tossing around baseballs and jumping into the batting cage to take a few swings at Turner Field.

It may seem hard to believe, but spring training is just a few weeks away.

Among those turning out for the informal workouts Tuesday with temperatures in the low 40s: closer Craig Kimbrel, slugger Jason Heyward and recovering starter Brandon Beachy, who is coming off major elbow surgery but hopes to be ready by June.

As with most teams this time of year, there's plenty of optimism. The Braves will have to make do without longtime star Chipper Jones, who retired, but they're looking forward to adding free-agent signee B.J. Upton to the lineup.

``The sky's the limit for us,'' said Heyward, who seems poised to become the Braves' biggest star now that Jones is gone. ``We feel like it's set up pretty well for us.''

Of course, it was a bit strange to see that empty locker on the other side of the room, the spot where Jones held court in the later years of a nearly two-decade-long career.

``We've been preparing for this day as much as anyone could,'' Heyward said, glancing in that direction. ``But it will feel different. For me, being from Georgia, ever since I've been in Georgia, No. 10 has been on the field for the Braves. That's going to be a different feeling for me.''

But, he added, ``Good things do come to an end. I'm just glad he was able to go out on his own terms.''

Kimbrel had a hectic offseason, getting married the first of December and honeymooning in the Dominican Republic.

``We got back in time for Christmas and New Year's,'' he said, ``and now it's baseball season.''

The right-hander will try to follow up one of the most dominant seasons ever by a closer, becoming the first pitcher in baseball history to strike out more than half the batters he faced (116 out of 231).

Kimbrel also is getting ready to play for his country for the first time. He was selected, along with teammate Kris Medlen, to pitch for the U.S. at the World Baseball Classic in March.

``I'm very excited,'' Kimbrel said. ``It doesn't happen too often, and this is my chance to do it. I'm going to do my best and try to help Team USA win.''

Kimbrel and Medlen aren't the only Atlanta players who'll be suiting up in the WBC. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons will play for the Netherlands, while third baseman Martin Prado is part of the Venezuelan roster.

Those four will have to leave Atlanta's camp in the middle of spring training, but general manager Frank Wren said he would never discourage a player from representing his country unless there was some sort of injury concern. In fact, he thinks the experience might actually help someone such as Kimbrel, who wasn't as sharp as he wanted to be at the start of last season.

Heyward passed on a chance to play for the U.S. team, however, feeling it was better to stay with the Braves throughout the spring.

``He sees the long-range benefit of being in our camp,'' Wren said. ``He feels like working consistently with our guys will help him during the season.''

Heyward was a rookie star in 2010, homering in his first big league at-bat and drawing praise as the future of baseball from no less than Hank Aaron. After struggling through injuries and mechanical problems in his sophomore season, he bounced back nicely last year - 27 homers, 82 RBIs and 21 stolen bases.

He feels his career is back on track.

``The biggest thing that's different is I don't feel like I'm searching for anything,'' he said. ``Baseball is a feel game. You need to know what you're looking for. You need to have the right feel for how your swing is broken down: timing, tempo, just things as simple as your stance. I feel like all those things I have now.''

Beachy is taking a different approach this spring, since he's still in the middle of a yearlong recuperation from reconstructive surgery on his right elbow.

For him, the normal routine of spring training won't come until a couple of months into the season.

``I'm not too thrilled about that,'' said Beachy, who was the Braves' most effective starter before he went down. ``I want to feel part of the normal routine as soon as possible.''

For everyone else, it will get here soon enough.

Sure, the Super Bowl is still more than a week away. But the Braves' pitchers and catchers will be reporting to camp in Florida on Feb. 11.

Yep, it's almost time to play ball.

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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Week 6's Redskins game marked another successful celebration of the THINK-PINK! campaign

Week 6's Redskins game marked another successful celebration of the THINK-PINK! campaign

During the Redskins-Panthers Week 6 matchup, the FedEx Field end zones ditched their usual gold trim for some pink instead. As it turns out, burgundy and pink go quite well together.

The reason for the change was to celebrate the Redskins Breast Cancer Awareness game as well as the 20th anniversary of Tanya Snyder's THINK-PINK! campaign.

Mrs. Snyder started the movement two decades ago by passing out 8,000 handmade pink ribbons at the team's stadium meant to remind people that early detection of breast cancer can make a major difference.

Now, her campaign has gone league-wide and is the reason you see so many players wearing pink in October, fans waving pink towels in the stands and other awareness-raising initiatives throughout the NFL.

"Very, very, very proud," Snyder said while handing out ribbons before the Washington-Carolina game. "We're not finished, but we are making a difference with early detection. So I'm beaming." 

For more information on Snyder and the NFL's breast cancer efforts, head to redskins.com/thinkpink. And for more details about the events held at FedEx Field during Week 6, check out the video above.

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Dwight Howard practices for first time with Wizards, raising likelihood he plays in opener

Dwight Howard practices for first time with Wizards, raising likelihood he plays in opener

On Monday, for the first time since 2018-19 training camp began, the Wizards were complete.

Dwight Howard, who missed three weeks due to a strained piriformis muscle, participated in his first full practice with his new team. The 32-year-old signed a free agent deal with the Wizards in July, but had yet to take the court due to the injury, which began bothering him shortly before camp began on Sept. 25.

Howard had a setback on Oct. 6 and saw a specialist in New York. He received a pain injection on Tuesday and on Saturday began shooting again.

After clearing that hurdle, he was ready to be a full-go with his new teammates.

"It felt pretty good. I really gotta catch my wind and learn some of the offense. But other than that, it felt pretty good," Howard said of Day 1.

Howard practicing on Monday gives him two more days to work with before the Wizards open their season on Thursday at home against the Miami Heat. Both he and head coach Scott Brooks say it's too early to tell if he will be available.

"We'll see how it feels. I will do everything I can to make myself available for all 82 games," Howard said.

Howard not only has to play himself into game shape, he has to develop chemistry and timing with his new teammates. He missed all five of their preseason games.

If Howard can play, that would certainly be a positive turn of events for the Wizards. As of the end of last week, it seemed highly unlikely he would be ready when the regular season began.

But Howard turned a corner and now appears to be coming along quicker than once expected. 

"It was probably our best practice of training camp," Brooks said Monday after finally getting Howard into the mix.

"He has a natural feel. His IQ was pretty high, I was impressed with that. He picked things up."

Howard signed a two-year contract worth $11 million to join the Wizards in July.

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