Kimbrel breaks saves record, after nearly having to bat

PHOENIX – For Braves closer Craig Kimbrel and teammates, there was a moment of levity late Friday in a 5-2 win against the Diamondbacks, just before Kimbrel notched his 155th career save to break John Smoltz's Braves franchise record.

Kimbrel was brought in with two out and the potential tying run on base in the eighth inning, and proceeded to strike out ex-Brave Martin Prado for the third out.

Now it was the top of the ninth and the Braves’ offense was suddenly rolling, tacking on four hits and two insurance runs to turn a 3-2 lead into a 5-2 margin. But things were getting a bit dicey for Kimbrel, whose place in the batting order was getting closer, the Braves having brought pitcher Alex Wood in as part of a double-switch to start the inning.

After Justin Upton’s two-out RBI single, the fourth hit of the inning, Evan Gattis was up with Chris Johnson on deck and … Kimbrel in the hole. Kimbrel, who doesn’t take batting practice, and whose only plate appearances in 375 professional baseball games was a strikeout for the 2010 Triple-A Gwinnett Braves.

Now he was in his 254th major league appearance, about to break a franchise record, and the best closer in baseball was just two batters away from potentially facing a right-hander, Trevor Cahill, with a nasty sinker and command issues, as evident by Cahill’s league-high 17 wild pitches last season.

“It kind of confused me, really,” said Kimbrel, who could laugh about it afterward. “(Manager Fredi Gonzalez) told me to go grab a bat, and I had no idea. I was just standing at the bat rack like a lost puppy. I didn’t know whose helmet I should grab or whose bat I should grab or whose gloves.”

On the bright side, “It kind of took my mind away from (getting the save) for a little bit, which was helpful and nice.”

But for the present, there was the issue of finding a helmet, bat and batting gloves. Oh, and a strategy.

“He said he didn’t have any idea what to do,” said Braves right fielder Jason Heyward, who was standing nearby. “I said, just get in there and as soon as they’re about to let go of the ball, step out. Just step out, please.”

Heyward smiled and added, “That would’ve been fun.”

Alas, it didn’t happen. Before Kimbrel was forced to go into serious scramble mode, Gattis grounded into an inning-ending fielder’s choice.

Now all Kimbrel had to do was what he does best: Get the last three outs. He did that in 10 pitches, getting Aaron Hill to line out to center, David Peralta to line out to left, and Tuffy Gosewisch to pop out to shortstop Andrelton Simmons.

It had been an unusual night all around for Kimbrel – only his third career save of more than one inning; nearly his first time batting in a major league game; and the last three outs recorded without a strikeout, with the saves record his after a guy named Tuffy Gosewisch made the final out.

In just under 3 ½ spectacular seasons as a full-time closer, Kimbrel broke the franchise record that had belonged to John Smoltz, a former Cy Young Award winner and likely future Hall of Famer who served as closer for about 3 ½ seasons upon his return from Tommy John elbow surgery.

Smoltz was a starter for the rest of his career, and remains the only major league pitcher to record at least 200 wins and 150 saves. Kimbrel said again that it was an honor to be mentioned in the same sentence as Smoltz.

Kimbrel, who turned 26 on May 28, was asked about breaking a franchise career record at such a relatively young age, and called it “pretty awesome.”

“Like I’ve said, I’ve been a part of a lot of good teams and had a lot of opportunities,” he said. “Having a chance my first full season to be a closer, that doesn’t happen very often. I had that opportunity that not a lot of guys have, and I feel blessed.”

In Kimbrel’s record-breaking game Friday, longtime teammate Jason Heyward had three hits including a two-run homer, a walk and three RBIs. Heyward was the 2010 National League Rookie of the Year runner-up; Kimbrel spent part of the 2010 season in the majors and was NL Rookie of the Year in 2011.

“I’m very happy for him,” Heyward said. “Glad he could get it. It would have obviously been nice to get it at home, but I’m happy for him. I’ve played with him for four years and some change and he’s already the franchise leader in saves, so that’s pretty cool.”