KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Craig Kimbrel is excited about his new locker in the Atlanta Braves’ spring training clubhouse.
Instead of being relegated to the side of the room that is largely for rookies, backups and obscure minor leaguers, Kimbrel has switched to a prime location right next to the Braves’ top starter, Tim Hudson.
“I’m on the cool side of the locker room now,” Kimbrel joked Monday. “I’m more in the middle of everything.”
He was in the middle of a lot of key games during his first full season in the big leagues.
Unleashing a fastball that approaches 100 mph, Kimbrel buckled the knees of big league stars and left others flailing at pitches. He set a rookie record with 46 saves and didn’t give up a run for nearly three months. He was a unanimous choice for NL rookie of the year, anchoring a Nasty Boys-like bullpen that included fellow All-Star Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty.
For all the accolades and dominance, there’s still the matter of Kimbrel’s last trip to the mound.
Sweating profusely and unable to throw strikes, he failed to hold a ninth-inning lead against Philadelphia on the final day of the season. The Braves wound up losing in the 13th inning, completing a September collapse that cost them a spot in the postseason.
No wonder Kimbrel was so eager to take the field at the first official workout for pitchers and catchers.
“I’m more anxious this year to get things going,” he said. “We all are. The way last year ended, we’re all ready to get going and say, ‘Last year was last year, and we’ve got a clean slate now.’”
Of course, it’s not so easy to wipe away one of the most epic swoons in baseball history. At the beginning of September, the Braves seemed a lock for the playoffs. By the end of the month, having lost 18 of their final 27 games, Atlanta could only watch as the Cardinals celebrated an improbable charge to the NL wild card. St. Louis rubbed more salt in the wound by going on to capture the World Series title.
For any closer, there are going to be plenty of exhilarating highs, but inevitably some gut-wrenching lows.
For the 23-year-old Kimbrel, the latter came at the worst possible time.
“It was an important game. Then again, in my eyes, it was just another game – a game where I just didn’t do my job,” he said. “There’s no reason to dwell over it. There’s nothing we can do about it right now. All we can do is get ready for this season.”
With that in mind, Kimbrel changed up his routine in hopes of being stronger late in the season. He cut back on the throwing he normally does over the winter, and he’s not that concerned about being in top form for his first appearance of spring training.
Kimbrel doesn’t want another September like the last one. Over his final eight appearances, he blew three save chances and surrendered six runs in 7⅓ innings. He still showed flashes of his dominating repertoire, striking out 12 in that span, but his command of those pitches clearly faded as he gave up seven hits and six walks.
“I felt great,” he insisted. “My fastball was still there. But in this game, when you throw pitches in certain spots, these hitters are going to hit it. That’s just how it is.”
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez took heat for the way he used the bullpen, especially his two All-Stars. Kimbrel made 79 appearances, a huge increase in the workload he had just a couple of years earlier in the minors. Venters pitched in a league-high 85 games – and, like Kimbrel, wasn’t nearly as effective in that crucial final month.
Gonzalez acknowledges he might’ve gone to Kimbrel and Venters more than was necessary early in the season. This time, he might try to stick with a hard-and-fast rule about only using them in the eighth and ninth innings when the Braves have a lead.
“It’s easier said than done,” Gonzalez said. “Last year, we played 41 one-run games. We played 26 extra-inning games. Somebody has got to pitch those innings. You’ve got to remember, those games in April are just as important as the ones in July and August and September.”
Even though the final month didn’t go as planned, the Braves could hardly complain about their Big Three in the bullpen. O’Flaherty, who usually worked the seventh inning, posted a miniscule 0.98 ERA. Venters, the eighth-inning specialist, went 6-2 with a 1.84 ERA and five saves. Kimbrel, the finisher, had 127 strikeouts in 77 innings with a 2.10 ERA.