Saturday, June 7, 2014

155 and Counting

In Atlanta, it was Saturday, but in Arizona, it was a Friday night game where the Braves, behind some good offense and the great Julio Teheran, took the first of a three-game set in the desert from the Diamondbacks 5-2. The game was most notable for being the 155th time Craig Kimbrel took over a game with a close lead and finished the game. I am one of those guys who thinks saves are way, way, WAY overvalued by both today's general managers and fans. Nevertheless, the greatness of Kimbrel simply cannot be overstated. The wild Kimbrel that made it to the bigs in 2010 has long ago faded into the efficient flame-thrower with a knuckle-curve (or spiked curveball) that has became one of the nastiest pitches in the game. So, I figure it would be a good time to look at some key moments of Kimbrel's still relatively young career.

After rocketing to the majors ahead of his 22nd birthday in 2010, Kimbrel did not get his first opportunity to nail down a save opportunity until September 19th against the Mets. After regular closer Billy Wagner has thrown a pair of innings the previous two days against the Mets, it was young Kimbrel's turn to get his shot. It was also the first real appearance of the O'Ventbrel trio that would have a brief, but incredibly effective run. Derrek Lee had hit a Grand Slam in the seventh and the Braves held a 6-3 lead. Hardly the toughest save conversion of Kimbrel's career, but he came in nevertheless and struck out Carlos Beltran looking. David Wright saw three pitches and after swinging and missing at the third one, he went back to the dugout. Ike Davis got the message and went up hacking, reaching on a swinging bunt that he barely made contact on. Not deterred, Kimbrel struck out Chris Carter swinging to end it. Like many of his saves, he struck out the side.

Kimbrel would sadly blow a postseason save conversion against the Giants, but took over full-time as the closer in 2011, getting the call on opening day against the Nationals. After Derek Lowe and three relievers kept the Nationals at bay, Kimbrel came in to preserve a 2-0 lead. Adam LaRoche flew out after a seven pitch battle. Michael Morse was sent down swinging while Rick Ankiel fought, but was caught staring at strike three.

Kimbrel would strike out the side four days later against the Brewers for his second save and first of eight saves where he recorded all three outs by strikeout. On July 2nd, 2011, Kimbrel recorded his 25th save of his career against the Baltimore Orioles. David Ross had hit a Grand Slam in the fourth and the Braves were holding onto a tenius one run lead when Kimbrel got the call in the ninth. After striking out Adam Jones, Matt Wieters would single. Former Brave Derrek Lee was desperate not to stay in the batter's box and popped out to first. Felix Pie, a future Gwinnett Brave, would strike out on a nasty curve in the dirt. Ross would throw him out.

Save #50 would come early in 2012. On April 13th, the Braves and Brewers played in a crazy see-saw affair that suited a game started by Jair Jurrjens and Randy Wolf. The Braves would chase Wolf in the fifth with the help of a three-run shot by Brian McCann and a two-run homer off the bat of Matt Diaz. They led 8-3 by the time the inning came to a close. Jurrjens would be chased in the top of the sixth. The Brewers tied it against Eric O'Flaherty in the seventh at 8 a piece, but a two-run single by Dan Uggla in the 8th gave Kimbrel a chance to get half-way to a hundred. He gave up a one out single, but struck out Corey Hart to end the game and preserve the 10-8 slugfest victory.

2012 saw Kimbrel end the game with the save and a trio of strikeouts ten times. However, save #75 saw Kimbrel throw just eight pitches to easily dispatch of the Giants on July 19th. By the end of August, Kimbrel passed both Cecil Upshaw and John Rocker to move into the top five all-time in franchise history for saves. After a rare four-day rest, Kimbrel came in with two outs in the 8th inning on September 5th. With a pair of runners in scoring position, Kimbrel struck out Jordan Pacheco. While he walked Jason Giambi in the ninth with two outs, he picked up three more strikeouts in the ninth to secure his first four-out save. Against the Marlins on September 26th, Kimbrel notched his second straight 40-save season while also striking out four in one inning after a wild pitch allowed one of those poor souls to reach base. Only John Smoltz had saved 40 games in a single season before Kimbrel and he had done it three times.

The Giants were Kimbrel's victim when he recorded his 100th career save on May 9th, 2013. He was the second-youngest and the fourth-fastest by converting 100 of his first 113 chances. On June 28th, after Teheran outdueled Randall Delgado and K'd 10 Diamondbacks batters, Kimbrel would get the call to keep the 3-0 lead. He walked a batter with one out, but got a 4-6-3 double play to end it. It was save #112 of his career, tying Kimbrel with Mark Wohlers for the third most in franchise history. It would be nearly two weeks before he passed Wohlers, but on May 9th, he struck out a pair of Marlins in a perfect ninth inning. Overall, Kimbrel only recorded all three outs by strikeouts in six of his saves that season, but he did become the second Brave to save 50 in a single season. Save #41 that year, against the Cardinals, was his only four out save of the year and amazingly, he recorded all four outs without a strikeout as the Cardinals went up hacking and Kimbrel needed just 11 pitches for the save.

At the end of last season, Kimbrel had 139 saves. He would quickly climb the leaderboards this season. After striking out the side during the second game of the season, Kimbrel tied Gene Garber for second most saves in franchise history on April 2nd by dispatching of three more Brewers for his second save of the year. Two days later, he held second place by himself as he nailed down a 2-1 win against the Nationals. From there, it was the march to 154 and beyond. On the last day of May, he got a rare save in a game decided by four runs when he entered via the "tying run on deck" qualification against the marlins, closing the door and stranding a pair.

It took a week, but on Friday night, save #155 came. Kimbrel entered with, at the time, the tying run on first and former Brave Martin Prado at the plate. After a battle, Prado was caught looking at straight-up filthy stuff. After the Braves eased the pressure with two insurance runs in the 9th, Kimbrel finished up with three more outs and a new franchise record.

And he's just 26 years old, plus a couple of weeks. If he remains healthy, more milestones will follow. And as much as I hate paying a premium for saves, having the best of the best in the ninth is pretty sweet.

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