Pirates C Jason Kendall, who badly dislocated his right ankle in a sickening accident on July 4, had his ankle brace removed yesterday and hopes to be 100 percent well before the start of spring training.

"I almost feel like a normal person," said Kendall, who returned from his Manhattan Beach, Calif., home yesterday to meet with Pirates' physicians and shed the brace he has worn since his cast was removed more than a month ago.

Kendall said he misses playing so much that he still can't stand watching games on TV -- he follows the Pirates on the Internet -- but that his rehabilitation is on schedule. He expects to report to spring training on schedule in February and go through camp as if he had never been hurt.

PIAZZA HURT: Mike Piazza left last night's game after being hit in the left hand by a foul ball, and Mets Manager Bobby Valentine said the all-star catcher would most likely sit out today. X-rays taken at Shea Stadium were negative. Valentine said he was hopeful Piazza would return to the lineup on Sunday.

The injury occurred in the first inning when Ron Gant, the second Phillies batter, fouled off a pitch that bruised Piazza's catching hand. Piazza finished the inning, but was replaced by Todd Pratt at the start of the second. . . .

Expos starter Mike Thurman left in the fourth inning when Gerald Williams led off with a liner off his left ankle for the Braves' first hit. X-rays were negative and Thurman is listed as day-to-day.