Craig Kimbrel ready for role as Braves closer

WASHINGTON -- Don’t let the rosy cheeks, wide eyes and soft-spoken Alabama accent fool you. When the Braves’ Craig Kimbrel gets on the mound, cap bill pulled down low, right arm dangling as he leans in to get the sign, he believes he belongs.

“They always say you can be confident and not cocky,” Kimbrel said. “Everybody should have that confidence.”

The 22-year-old Kimbrel has the attitude to match the mid-to-upper 90s fastball, one he used seven consecutive times to retire Adam LaRoche on a fly-out Thursday afternoon, the first batter he faced in the ninth inning on Opening Day.

It was Kimbrel’s first official batter he faced without the “of the future” part attached to his “closer” label.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez has preached using dual-closers as the Braves entered the 2011 season, with Jonny Venters sharing duties with Kimbrel based on matchups. But Thursday against the Nationals, the ninth inning was Kimbrel’s, despite the fact that Venters threw only seven pitches in the eighth inning and the left-handed-hitting LaRoche was leading off the ninth.

That’s about what Venters expects going forward.

“I think everybody expects he’ll be running out there most nights,” Venters said. “But if he needs a blow or whatever, I think any of us are ready to step in for a day, or whatever Craig needs.”

This isn’t just a fellow reliever being a good teammate. This is someone who has taken one of Kimbrel’s sliders off his hip trying to play catch with him.

“Craig’s stuff is so overpowering, overwhelming,” Venters said. “I know he’s young, but he trusts his stuff and he goes out there and throws strikes. He’s going to get people out. There’s no way around it.”

Tell it to the National League, which got its first taste of Kimbrel last year during his four stints in the major leagues. He allowed an earned run to the Diamondbacks on May 15, in the midst of an 11-1 loss, and didn’t give up another in 18 more regular-season appearances.

While Billy Wagner was capping off a potential Hall of Fame career with 37 saves, Kimbrel was taking advantage of his call-ups, learning the lay of the land.

On June 20, with his father in the stands on Father’s Day, Kimbrel walked two Royals batters and allowed another to reach on his own error. He promptly struck out the next two batters and retired the side on a pop-up on the infield. He preserved a tie, and the Braves went on to score three runs in the bottom of the inning.

He had his second major league win, and the makings of respect around the Braves’ bullpen.

“At that stage it was ‘Oh, that’s typical Kimbrel, walk three and punch out three, get out of the inning,’” reliever Peter Moylan said. “He was awesome.”

Kimbrel was known for having a wild streak in the minors. And at that point last season, he walked 10 in 8 1/3 innings in his major-league work. But by the time Kimbrel returned in September, he had smoothed some of those problems out. He walked only three in 11 1/3 innings to finish out the regular season.

By the postseason, manager Bobby Cox trusted him in critical situations, such as his two perfect innings in San Francisco in the Braves’ Game 2 Division Series victory against the Giants.

Kimbrel became the obvious choice to close after Wagner went down with a torn oblique in Game 2. If anything, it was almost a surprise when Cox came for the ball in the ninth inning in the Game 3 loss, even after Kimbrel had allowed a walk and a single.

Kimbrel had that look, standing on the mound in front of at 53,284 fans at Turner Field, he was meant to be there.

“You can try and teach it, but you can’t really,” Moylan said. “You’ve got to have it, and he’s got it.”

This spring training, Kimbrel walked only four to go with 15 strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings. Overall, he has struck out about two batters per inning in the majors, with 42 strikeouts in 21 2/3 innings.

If there’s concern about turning over such an important role to someone so young, especially with his history of walks, Venters, for one, isn’t buying it.

“I don’t even think it really matters if he walks guys,” Venters said. “He’s going to strike out two guys an inning.”

Right on cue Thursday, following the fly-out by LaRoche, Kimbrel struck out Michael Morse and Rick Ankiel of the Nationals. Ankiel went down looking at one of those sliders.