Craig Kimbrel is only 22. He’s about to get a shot at taking over the Braves closer job this spring, with the retirement of Billy Wagner. He has a lot on his mind.
But at home in Huntsville, Ala. on Tuesday afternoon, as he drove from doing some deer hunting to throwing for the first time this winter, Kimbrel sounded like the kind of person who could handle it.
When asked at what point last year he realized he could do the major league job, here’s what he said:
“There was never really a point last year where I didn’t think I could do it,” Kimbrel said. “I can’t go on the mound and think ‘I can’t do it,’ because then I’ll be in a losing situation.”
He wasn’t in too many of those. Kimbrel and his 96, 97 mph fastball allowed only one earned run in 20 2/3 innings over four major league stints last season, going 4-0 with an 0.44 ERA. This was on top of going 3-2 with a 1.62 ERA and 23 saves for Triple-A Gwinnett.
When Wagner went down with an oblique injury during the Division Series, Kimbrel was the one on the mound in the ninth inning in Game 3. He gave up a walk and a groundball base hit, which prompted former manager Bobby Cox to come for the ball. But there was no denying his mound presence and his potential to do the job. He’d pitched two perfect innings the game prior, with four strikeouts.
Kimbrel will enter spring training with confidence, but not assuming anything.
“I’m looking at it like it doesn’t matter what role I have, if I’m in the big leagues I’m happy,” he said. “But if I just go out there and focus more on pitching well, good things will happen.”
Kimbrel said without pitching in the Arizona Fall League this year, his arm has had more time to rest. And he’s made it a point not to push as hard going into camp, so that he can conserve energy for the long haul.
“I was going into spring training last year trying to make a good impression, catch people’s eyes,” Kimbrel said. “This year I’m a little bit more comfortable. I can work my arm strength up, instead of having to go in Day One being ready.”