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Atlanta Braves Blog / David O'Brien

Posted: 6:17 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013

Already baseball's best closer, Braves' Kimbrel will keep pushing 

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Kimbrel follow-through
Braves closer Craig Kimbrel leads the majors with 88 saves over past two seasons and struck out a record 50.2 percent of the batters he faced in 2012. He says he can't afford to become complacent.

 

  He always had a blur of a fastball that flirted with 100 mph, then Craig Kimbrel honed his curveball. Game over. Literally.

  That’s when the Braves closer became absurdly good -- as legitimately close to unhittable as we’ve seen a pitcher in some time.

  So now what?

   Kimbrel, at age 24 already the best closer in baseball, is coming off a season for the ages, having set new records by striking out half of all batters he faced in 2012 while piling up 16.66 strikeouts per nine innings -- a number that looks evil (those 6’s) but probably wasn’t as frightening as Kimbrel seemed to most hitters.

  Can the Alabama native sustain something close to this level of domination, after posting a 1.01 ERA and limiting opponents to a .126 batting average last season while striking out a record 50.2 percent of the batters he faced? Kimbrel sounds as if he’s ready to try.

  “Hitters start picking up on your tendencies and the rhythms and the way you do things,” he said. “Try to mess up your timing or mess up the way you pitch a certain guy. You’ve just got to keep on trying to trick the hitter. That’s our job as pitchers, let him not know what’s coming. And if he does know, put it somewhere where he can’t hit it.”

  All the accomplishments – two-time All-Star, unanimous NL Rookie of the Year in 2011, leads the majors with 88 saves over two seasons, eighth in MVP balloting in 2012 -- and the mounting praise seem to have made him more determined to avoid complacency.

  “Pretty cool,” he said Tuesday, before a workout on the first day of the Braves’ voluntary early pitching program at Turner Field. “If I had been sitting here two years ago and [someone predicted] all the things that have been said and the things I’ve been able to do the last two years, I’d have said no way. But really, I’m still just working hard and hoping I can keep things going.

 “The last thing I want to do is just sit back and be satisfied with the way things have been going. Then things will start going downhill.”

   He is only 5 feet 11, but when Kimbrel bends way forward at the waist and lets his pitching arm dangle at his side as he peers into the catcher for a sign, there is no more intimidating a pitcher in baseball. Because hitters know what that right arm is about to unleash.

  His electric fastball has been made all the more effective by a beast of a curveball that bores in on left-handed hitters and away from righties.

  “Having that definitely helps my fastball," said Kimbrel, who'll pitch for Team USA at the World Baseball Classic during spring training. "If guys could just sit on the fastball all the time, eventually they’re going to start hitting it. My curveball was actually better last year; it didn’t have the hump in it. It was more like a slider, where it would start down the middle and go off the plate. Maybe at times I was able to throw it for strikes more often -- and that’s what was my goal was, to be able to throw it for more strikes. So let’s hope I can do it again this year.”

  A lot of hitters and other observers call the pitch a slider, since that’s how the pitch moves.

  “Yeah, it’s a spike curveball but it has, like, slider action,” he said, the smiled. “I don’t know what it is. I just throw it up there.”

   Kimbrel got married Dec. 1. The honeymoon in the Dominican Republic was relaxing and romantic and all it’s supposed to be, he said that seeing Ashley, his wife, shoot a deer on their first hunting trip together was a highlight of his offseason. That came during a weekend excursion arranged as part of a speaking engagement  Kimbrel did for a foundation run by Dr. James Andrews.

  “It was a nice eight-point, she killed it a few weeks ago,” Kimbrel said proudly. “They set up this hunt for us to go on. I was like, can I bring my wife? They said, yeah, sure. She wasn’t too excited about it at the time, but when we got down there and she shot it, she was so excited. She was, like, ‘I know what you’re talking about! This is so exciting.’”

  For Braves fans, fun and exciting are two adjectives to describe what it was like to watch him pitch the ninth inning of most games he entered in 2012. Sheer domination is another apt description.

   Kimbrel served as a human exclamation mark for a bullpen that's been arguably the best in baseball during his two full seasons as closer and was ranked this month as the majors’ No. 1 bullpen by ESPN.com's Buster Olney in his influential blog.

   Left-handers Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty have been the Braves’ main seventh- and eighth-inning relievers over the past two seasons, though Venters had some shoulder issues and struggled for a couple of months in 2012. Rookie Luis Avilan came up at midseason to give the Braves yet another strong lefty, and Atlanta traded starter Tommy Hanson to the Angels in December for power righty Jordan Walden.

  Walden has an upper-90's fastball and collected 32 saves in 2011 before moving back to a setup role last season.

  The Braves will be confident once again that if they can take a lead to the seventh inning, their setup relievers will protect it andKimbrel will slam the door.

  A reporter asked right fielder Jason Heyward if it bred confidence among Braves to see what Kimbrel did last season.

  “Yes!” Heyward said, making it clear he couldn’t emphasize that enough. “You can say if we get this [lead] to the ninth inning, the odds are great. The odds are great [he repeated]. That is what it is. The numbers speak for themselves. You can really appreciate when you can hand it over to someone like that and say, the game is going to be over.”

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