As lonely as Craig Kimbrel felt coming off the mound in the ninth inning after blowing a save against the Phillies on the last day of the Braves’ season, there was somebody who could relate.
He’d been yelling at his TV back on his farm in Crozet, Va.
Billy Wagner had been in the same spot the year before, called on to close out the Braves’ final game of the season, with a trip to the playoffs on the line, and a one-run lead against the Phillies to protect.
As Wagner watched Kimbrel go through it, his wife, Sarah, asked if he was nervous.
“No, I don’t have to be anymore,” said Wagner, who retired at the end of the 2010 season, making way for rookie Kimbrel to take over as the Braves’ closer. “I don’t feel those nerves that Kimbrel is feeling right now. I’m feeling like that strike zone is about as big as a golf ball, and it’s moving.”
Wagner took exception with home-plate umpire Dale Scott’s balls and strikes calls. And he bristled at the TV analyst’s call that Kimbrel was overthrowing, which to Wagner was oversimplifying.
“I think Mariano and Trevor and some of these guys were just so good that they spoiled these analysts to make you think it’s just that easy,” said Wagner, who joined Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman among only five closers with 400 or more saves for their careers. “It’s not that easy to go out there and go one, two, three every time.”
Wagner went one, two, three to save the game against the Phillies on the last day of the 2010 season. He struck out all three batters looking, each time on a nasty slider. But Wagner points out he had 16 seasons in the big leagues to prepare him for that. This was Kimbrel’s first full season.
Wagner also knows what it feels like to be a part of a September collapse. He was the closer for the 2007 New York Mets when they lost a seven-game lead with 17 to play.
That’s why Wagner was quick to pick up his phone that night, Sept. 28, and text Kimbrel.
“He said ‘Don’t let this get you down,’” Kimbrel said. “‘Learn from your mistakes and let it make you a better pitcher.’... It definitely meant a lot.”
That kind of support from Wagner, teammates, family and friends has helped Kimbrel come to grips with his disappointment, and quickly.
Only two weeks into his offseason, Kimbrel said he’s past it.
“There’s nothing I can do about it,” he said. “I’m not going to let it beat me up. I definitely think about it, how I don’t want to fail like that again, but I don’t let it beat me up as in, ‘I should have done this’ or ‘I should have done that.’”
Kimbrel reserves the day after he pitches for self-criticism, and then he lets it go. On Sept. 29, the day after the season ended, he did what he had 78 other times this season. He sat down to watch video of the previous night’s outing, chart all his pitches in a notebook he keeps, and write down his thoughts about what worked the night before and what didn’t.
Notes to himself this time were “don’t let your emotions get to you,” “make sure you work at your own pace,” and “stay focused.”
The game had sped up on Kimbrel, who gave up a leadoff single to Placido Polanco, and then lost Ben Francisco and Jimmy Rollins on 3-2 pitches for walks. His head was spinning by the time Chase Utley tied the score 3-3 on a sacrifice fly, in a game the Braves eventually lost 4-3 in 13 innings.
“As soon as the game was over, I wanted to be right back out there to do it again,” Kimbrel said. “It stinks I have to wait four months to get back out there. I definitely have this to think about during the offseason, something to work on, something to push me a little bit. I want to get back to that situation the end of next year and be able to do the job next time.”
Kimbrel, who’ll turn 24 in May, will head into next season that much more prepared.
“He has a lot of humility, and he is always trying to learn,” Wagner said. “As good as he is and as good as he is going to be, he’s always asking really good questions of how he can improve and, that’s something at 24, I wasn’t doing. At 24 years old, I had no clue what I was doing. ...
“For this kid, I think this small little bump in the road is going to be one of the things he’s going to look back and really learn from. He’ll be able to make his adjustments and grow from it for the next time this happens.”
September was not all bad for Kimbrel. He got engaged to his college sweetheart, Ashley Holt, a former cheerleader at Wallace State. They’re to be married in December 2012. Last weekend they were in Tuscaloosa to watch his beloved Alabama Crimson Tide defeat Vanderbilt in football. He’s eager to get the better of set-up man and close friend Jonny Venters in an offseason bet to see who kills the biggest deer.
Kimbrel, who’s back home in Huntsville, said he’s watched a little of the baseball playoffs on TV, though it’s tough thinking about what might have been for the Braves. But he also said he’s not going to let his 79th appearance in a season that saw him save a major-league rookie record 46 games derail him.
“There were times during the season when I was more off or didn’t pitch as well,” Kimbrel said of that final night. “It happens. It happened the last game, so it’s magnified. I’m not going to let that affect me going into next year.”
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