ATLANTA - Freddy Garcia sat in front of his locker, the forefinger and middle finger on his big right paw spread around a softball. He was stretching and strengthening the digits to better throw his split-fingered fastball, eager to be back without injury questions.

The kid gloves are off. Garcia tonight makes his first unfettered start: No pitch count. No net.

"That's fine for me," Garcia said. "I'm happy to hear that."

Garcia missed his first two starts in April after tendinitis in his right biceps landed him on the 15-day disabled list coming out of spring training. Pitch counts limited him to 95 and 106 pitches in his first and third starts. He left in the sixth inning of his second start after finding no-out trouble.

"I can't pitch anything more than five innings," Garcia said, disgusted.

A restrictive pitch count won't affect how long Garcia lasts now. The Phillies now are willing to see him last as many as 120 pitches, Garcia's usual ceiling. He usually hits that ceiling at about 6 2/3 innings, his average outing in his eight big-league seasons before the Phillies traded for him in December from the White Sox. The 17-win pitcher last season was their major offseason move.

They hope his innings-eating tendencies return. Some of his velocity already is back.

"We're starting to see the real Freddy Garcia," pitching coach Rich Dubee said.

Well, sort of.

Garcia still hasn't regained the 95-mph fastball that set up his other pitches a couple of seasons ago, but he has hit 93 a couple of times. When his arm speed returns, so will the bite and velocity on his slider.

"I need to get my slider back," Garcia said. "When I have it, it's 82 or 84, at least. I'm throwing it 78, 80. I usually can throw it in any count, but last time out, I couldn't throw it for a strike."

His hard slider might be a couple of outings away. Meanwhile, Dubee noted, "He's got control of his offspeed stuff, for sure. It's just a matter of control with his fastball."

Maybe, without the harness of caution, it all will come back tonight.

Sat down, fired up

The same emotion that makes Shane Victorino a dynamo at 180 pounds made him a sourpuss last night.

The same emotion that makes Shane Victorino a dynamo at 180 pounds made him a sourpuss last night.

Manager Charlie Manuel rested Victorino, a switch-hitter, in favor of righthanded-hitting Jayson Werth against lefthander Mark Redman. Neither Werth nor Victorino had ever faced Redman, but Victorino was hitting .219 against lefthanders and had dipped to .260 overall, because of a 3-for-27 slump.

Victorino, a speedy contact hitter, has decent power righthanded; it is how he hit most of his career-high 18 home runs in 2005 in Triple A.

"Why even be a switch-hitter?" Victorino said.

That's not the point, Manuel said. Werth, the fourth outfielder, needs to play, but had started only four times. Besides, Manuel has said all along he planned to get Victorino about 500 at-bats. Through April, Victorino was on pace for more than 600.

"I've been wanting to get Victorino a day off anyway," Manuel said. "He needs it. He's at the point . . . He plays real hard. Sometimes, he gets mentally fatigued."

"I feel great," Victorino insisted. "[Monday] night, I felt a little better. I had a clue."

Perhaps he'll have the solution when he returns to the lineup tonight.

Phillers

Centerfielder Aaron Rowand took himself out in the seventh inning of Monday's game with a tight lower back, but declared himself fit to start last night. Rowand wrenched his back diving for a ball in the fourth inning Monday. He entered last night with a team-best .378 batting average . . . Third baseman Wes Helms returned to the lineup after missing two games in favor of Abraham Nunez . . . Braves catcher Brian McCann, who had an RBI double in the first inning, left in the second after being hit on his glove hand on Rod Barajas' swing. Barajas was awarded first base on catcher's intereference. McCann left two batters later after allowing a passed ball. Brayan Pena replaced him. X-rays were negative on McCann's bruised left ring finger. *

Centerfielder Aaron Rowand took himself out in the seventh inning of Monday's game with a tight lower back, but declared himself fit to start last night. Rowand wrenched his back diving for a ball in the fourth inning Monday. He entered last night with a team-best .378 batting average . . . Third baseman Wes Helms returned to the lineup after missing two games in favor of Abraham Nunez . . . Braves catcher Brian McCann, who had an RBI double in the first inning, left in the second after being hit on his glove hand on Rod Barajas' swing. Barajas was awarded first base on catcher's intereference. McCann left two batters later after allowing a passed ball. Brayan Pena replaced him. X-rays were negative on McCann's bruised left ring finger. *