CHICAGO – On the way to converting his 40th save Tuesday night to tie the major league rookie record and extend his ridiculously long scoreless streak, Craig Kimbrel gave up a bloop hit to Aramis Ramirez with two out in the ninth inning.
It was a pitch Kimbrel said was located poorly and could have been hit a lot farther, so he felt fortunate.
Well, it says something about Kimbrel’s nasty repertoire that he can mislocate a pitch and have it only blooper by Ramirez, because the hottest hitter in baseball right now could probably count on one hand the number of mistake pitches he’s done that to in the past couple of weeks.
Oh, yes, Aramis Ramirez has been even hotter lately than Dan Uggla, albeit for a shorter period.
These numbers from the Cubs third baseman are hard to fathom: Ramirez is 27-for-48 (.563) during a 12-game hitting streak with three doubles, four homers, 14 RBIs and an .875 slugging percentage.
He is 8-for-9 in the first two games of this four-game series with the Braves, including a career-best 5-hit game Tuesday. The man has nine multi-hit games in his past 12, including four games with three or more hits.
Oh, and this is hardly the first time the Braves have seen this guy do damage. For whatever reason, he’s teed off against Braves pitching like few others over the years.
Ramirez has a stunning .387 career average in 62 games against the Braves, with 17 doubles, 13 homers, 40 RBIs and a 1.049 OPS in 240 at-bats.
And are you ready for this? In his past eight games against Atlanta, he’s 22-for-34 (.647) with two homers, nine RBIs and nine runs. He’s had seven multi-hit games in those eight, and three or more hits in five.
But you didn’t come here to read about Ramirez and the Cubs, so let’s change the subject. Back to Kimbrel.
♣ Kimbrel with a big K: The ascendant Braves rookie has been the best closer in baseball this season. He’s 15 years younger than his retired mentor Billy Wagner was last season, when a 38-year-old Wagner was the best Braves closer since John Smoltz.
Kimbrel, 23, overcame an inconsistent early season stretch to become the most dominant reliever in baseball over the past two months, currently riding a 32-appearance scoreless streak that spans 31-2/3 innings, during which he’s allowed 12 hits and 10 walks with 55 strikeouts.
He has 14 strikeouts with two walks in six innings over his past six appearances, and the babe-faced assassin from Alabama has 103 strikeouts and 25 walks in 63-2/3 innings this season.
No other major league reliever has as many as 85 strikeouts, and Kimbrel’s 14.56 strikeouts per nine innings is more than three strikeouts above the next-highest rate in the NL, Carlos Marmol’s 11.38 for the Cubs.
The end result will be a season that should compare favorably with Wagner’s 2010 or Smoltz’s 2002, when the bearded icon set an NL record with 55 saves (Eric Gagne matched it a year later).
(By the way, as much as the reliever phase of Smoltz’s career is remembered for his record 55 saves in ’02, his performance in ’03 surpassed it by most measures. In that ’03 season he had a 1.12 ERA and 0.870 WHIP (walks-plus-hits per inning pitched), with a jaw-dropping strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 73/8 in 64-1/3 innings.
Yes, 73 strikeouts with eight walks.
For Kimbrel, the last run against him was June 11 at Houston. Manager Fredi Gonzalez used Jonny Venters in two save situations that week, because Kimbrel had been shaky in recent outings and Venters was the league’s hottest reliever to that point of the season. (Both made the All-Star team and have formed, with Eric O’Flaherty, the most dominant relief trio in years.)
At that time, Kimbrel had a 3.38 ERA and .229 opponents’ average in 33 appearances, with five blown saves in 23 opportunities
After considering making a change and having Venters at least split the closer duties with Kimbrel, Gonzalez decided to keep Kimbrel in the primary closer role.
Kimbrel hasn’t given up a run, earned or otherwise, in more than two months since then. In 32 scoreless appearances since then, opponents have hit .114 against him, and he’s 22-of-22 in save opportunities.
His next save will move Kimbrel past Neftali Feliz for the major league rookie record. Feliz, a former Braves prospect, had 40 saves last season for Texas.
Kimbrel tied the record Tuesday when he struck out pinch-hitter Tyler Colvin with Ramirez at second base in a 5-4 game (Ramirez had advanced on an error by right fielder Jason Heyward).
“I would like to see how many of those are one-run games,” Gonzalez said. “It seems like every night it’s one run….”
Actually it’s 18 one-run save opps for Kimbrel, who has converted the last 11.
“He’s just so composed,” Gonzalez said. “He’s not just a fastball guy anymore. He threw three breaking balls to the last guy. He’s learning. He’s getting better. He’s been terrific, really.”
Chipper Jones was asked late Tuesday what Kimbrel has shown him this season.
“Fearless,” Jones said. “Absolutely fearless. I think he realized really early on in the season, I throw the ball 100 miles an hour, and 99 percent of the people in the big leagues, you can tell them 99 [mph] is coming and they ain’t going to hit it. And he’s got a devastating breaking ball to boot. And he commands both.
“To listen to guys on other teams talk about our guys at the end of the bullpen, it’s really amazing. That they have harnessed everything this quickly. The kid’s got 40 saves before the end of August.”
After the major league rookie record, the next saves mark ahead of Kimbrel will be tough to reach this season. That’s the Smoltz/Gagne 55-save NL record, which is also obviously the Braves team record.
Kimbrel got his 40th save Tuesday in the Braves’ 130th team game. In 2002, Smoltz had 45 saves (in 49 opportunities) after 130 team games.
While it’s certainly possible that Kimbrel could reel off 15 saves in the surging’ Braves last 32 regular-season games, the likelihood may be that they will want to rest him a bit more in the final weeks before the postseason.
The Braves have won six in a row and 15 of 19 to move to a season-high 26 games over .500 (78-52), the fourth-best record in the majors. They’re still 6-1/2 games behind Philadelphia in the NL East, while the Braves have extended their wild-card lead to a seemingly insurmountable 9-1/2 games over San Francisco and 10-1/2 over St. Louis.
They certainly don’t want to take their foot off the gas and coast in the final weeks. But unless the Braves believe they have a legit chance to catch Philadelphia and win the division and home-field advantage that would go with that, I’d expect they’ll try to get Kimbrel and fellow workhorses Venters and O’Flaherty a bit more rest to make sure they’re as fresh as possible for the playoffs.
Particularly since hard-throwing recent rookie arrival Arodys Vizcaino has shown he can handle big late-innings situations, and Peter Moylan should be back from the DL after rosters expand next week. Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado could also be options in September.
Kimbrel doesn’t think much about rest. Or records, or streaks. He just takes the ball whenever the call is made to the bullpen, and goes to work mowing down hitters.
“I’ll look back on it at the end of the year,” he said of his growing list of accomplishments. “Right now I’m just worried about helping us win and helping us get to the playoffs and through the playoffs.”
♣ OK, outta time. Let’s close with best song off the Smashing Pumpkins’ 1995 double CD Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Frontman Billy Corghan is from the Chicago ‘burbs. You can hear the studio version by clicking here, or click here to see them do a live, acoustic version of the song that might be even better.
“TONIGHT, TONIGHT” by Smashing Pumpkins (Corghan)
Time is never time at all
You can never ever leave without leaving a piece of youth
And our lives are forever changed
We will never be the same
The more you change the less you feel
Believe, believe in me, believe
That life can change, that you’re not stuck in vain
We’re not the same, we’re different tonight
Tonight, so bright
And you know you’re never sure
But you’re sure you could be right
If you held yourself up to the light
And the embers never fade in your city by the lake
The place where you were born
Believe, believe in me, believe
In the resolute urgency of now
And if you believe there’s not a chance tonight
Tonight, so bright
We’ll crucify the insincere tonight
We’ll make things right, we’ll feel it all tonight
We’ll find a way to offer up the night tonight
The indescribable moments of your life tonight
The impossible is possible tonight
Believe in me as I believe in you, tonight
– David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog