Wagner reminded Kimbrel to learn from last year’s ending

Braves closer Craig Kimbrel has learned from his mentor, Billy Wagner. (Jason Getz/AJC)

Braves closer Craig Kimbrel has learned from his mentor, Billy Wagner. (Jason Getz/AJC)

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Having just watched the final out of the final loss of the final-month bloodletting that would crush the Braves’ season, Billy Wagner – retired, but a little sick over matters himself – picked up the phone in his rural Virginia home to call one of the team’s players. He figured Craig Kimbrel would be in need of some emotional counseling.

“It was right after the game,” Wagner said. “I was just going to leave him a voice message, but I was surprised when he actually answered. I think he was still in uniform. I just reminded him of the season he had. I told him what an honor it was for him just to be there. I said, ‘You went out there and it didn’t work out. But you got the greatest gift ever. So learn from it, go back out there next year and don’t beat yourself up.’ He’ll be fine.”

The Braves start playing games again Saturday, albeit a spring training weekend series against Detroit doesn’t hold the same significance as the deciding last few days of the 2011 season. When Kimbrel makes his first appearance, it will be his sincere hope to pick up not quite where he left off.

Closers need to have short memories. Their job isn’t much different than a drag racers’. Slam on the gas, then either win or watch engine parts fly into Row 6.

Either way, re-centering oneself is crucial. It would explain why when I asked Kimbrel what he thought it takes to be a great closer, he responded without hesitation: “I don’t know. I failed a lot last year.”

Not really a lot. Just a few more times late than he had been.

His first full major league season was largely dream-like. He was named the National League’s Rookie of the Year, receiving all 32 first-place votes. He registered 46 saves, a major league rookie record. Only one Braves closer in franchise history has had more: Guy named John Smoltz (55 in 2002).

But things didn’t end well. After a stretch from June 19-Sept. 8 that saw Kimbrel string together a perfect 25 saves and two wins without a blown appearance, he began to leak oil. He lost three of six leads (officially two blown saves and one loss).

It wasn’t quite a complete breakdown. There were some command issues. But looking relatively unconscious for so long, Kimbrel just looked human for the first time. On Sept. 9 in St. Louis, he was handed a 3-1 lead, but gave up a two-out, two-run single to Albert Pujols in the ninth. Ten days later, with a 5-4 lead at Florida and two outs, Chipper Jones lost a chopper in the lights – it happens every 2,000 years – Omar Infante followed with a two-run walk-off homer against Kimbrel.

Then came the season finale. A win over Philadelphia would allow the fading Braves to preserve a wild-card berth. But Kimbrel, holding a 3-2 lead, allowed a single, two walks and a sacrifice fly to allow the Phillies to tie the score. Wagner, who mentored Kimbrel when he was the Braves’ closer in 2010, said it was “the only game when the emotions of the game got to” Kimbrel. The Braves lost in 13. When the Cardinals won, the season was over.

Kimbrel said he recovered emotionally “relatively quick.” When manager Fredi Gonzalez phoned him two days after the season, Kimbrel was back home in Alabama, putting up his tree stands for hunting.

“I’m the kind of guy who’s not going to dwell on things for a while,” Kimbrel said. “There was nothing I can do about it. I’m not going to let it hinder me or hurt me this season because that was last season. If anything, what happened last year has motivated, not just me, but the whole team, to play good baseball for, not 90 percent of the season but 100 percent of the season.”

Staying grounded doesn’t seem to be an issue for one of the majors’ best closers last season. Some teammates have been calling him, “Roy” (acronym for rookie of the year). Kimbrel isn’t thrilled.

“They only call me that because they know I don’t like it,” he said. “My name is Craig.” And Craig has a short memory.

By Jeff Schultz

66 comments Add your comment

Ryan

March 2nd, 2012
1:13 pm

Good story, he will bounce back I’m sure. Just nasty stuff.

Sonny Clusters

March 2nd, 2012
1:24 pm

We had a teammate once that was always clearing his throat and we called him, Phlegm. Phlegm Lattimore was his whole name and he was a second baseman. Sometimes when Phlegm Lattimore and Stinky Wintes was in the dugout together it was so nasty the rest of us didn’t want to go in there. We was reminded by Jeff’s article.

Orange Brave f/k/a Billy Jack's BBQ

March 2nd, 2012
1:25 pm

Nice not to have to worry about the pen this year. Great job of writing

Sonny Clusters

March 2nd, 2012
1:30 pm

Knowing when to bring in a closer is something most every major lague manager is pretty good at with only a few notable exceptions. We was thinking of one exception but didn’t want to bring it up for fear of being accused of not being a real, true, Braves fan. We was always told that sticks and stones could break our bones but saying we’re not a real true fan can never hurt us if we know different. Now, back when we was playing ball with Phlegm Lattimore we remember him being banned from the Dairy Queen because he was always making people sick clearing his throat while people was trying to eat their sundaes.

bulldogbubba

March 2nd, 2012
2:12 pm

Clusters – Did you have any of those fake “flags” around the Orange Jungle?

jeffrey d

March 2nd, 2012
2:17 pm

Thanks, Jeff…good piece

Trojan

March 2nd, 2012
2:23 pm

I hope than Freddie Gonzolas, learned something. That is to not wear out the top three relievers by pitching them in every game. There are more ways to win other than EOF, JV and CK.

Lee in S GA

March 2nd, 2012
2:24 pm

Nice article…just please stay away from that aweful “o’ventbrel” phrase for the fab 3 this year. Can’t anybody come up with anything different….

Sonny Clusters

March 2nd, 2012
2:27 pm

bulldogbubba, we would never do that. All our championships was won on the field on the last day. We never celebrated winning something that really wasn’t winning anything but we didn’t have a PR department like the Braves. We just had Coach and he wasn’t one to celebrate unless it was a state championship we was celebrating and we did all that at the Dairy Queen. A self respecting organization would never call themselves ‘Champions” of something if they really wasn’t champions. For instance, we know a team that says they was “Wild Card Champions” in 2010. Try as we might we can’t understand how they was champions of anything but they have a little flag out in the outfield to prove it.

DetroitBraves

March 2nd, 2012
2:55 pm

For whatever it’s worth, a lot of people out here have blamed a lot of the Braves for what happened last season but I don’t think I recall ever seeing anyone blaming Kimbrel. When some people around the Braves talk about not looking back at last season’s mistakes it sounds awfully convienent (Fredi Gonzalez) but for Kimbrel it was a very solid season. No reason to dwell. Time to move on and hopefully be is used more judiciously.

Stinger2

March 2nd, 2012
3:00 pm

Clusters: Hurry up and finish your negative stuff for today so you will not be late for your shift at the Dairy Queen.

Larry

March 2nd, 2012
3:22 pm

Craig my have surrendered the lead a very few times out of many, but Craig never batted Alex Gonzalez, Dan Uggla or Jayson Heyward at lead-off, or put in Johnny Venters late in the season with a 6 run lead and having pitched the three previous nights.

Yes, we lost the lead in the last game of the season, but much more than the players, or Craig himself, the Braves manager habit of throwing away winnable games from April through August finally caught up with them in September.

Sometimes you have to manage your manager, and this is where Frank Wren truly failed by hiring an unproven, third base caliber coach. Hold your head high, Craig…with most an other Major League quality skipper you’d have more post season saves by now.

Dawgdad (The Original)

March 2nd, 2012
3:32 pm

Sonny, the flag for the “second” wild card champ has to be a pink one dontcha think?

cowdogit

March 2nd, 2012
3:44 pm

I wonder why the pitchers didn’t become tired and worn out during LEO MAZZONE’S fourteen division titles. May have had something to do with his tough work out rules.

Hillbilly D

March 2nd, 2012
3:44 pm

When a team loses out by 1 game, you can pretty well pick anybody on the team and point to one bad game they had that “would’ve been the difference”. Yesterday is dead and gone, it’s time to move on and worry about this year. And I’m not even a Braves fan, just a baseball fan.

Hillbilly D

March 2nd, 2012
3:46 pm

cowdogit

That’s true but it also may have had something to do with starters going deeper into games, if you’re referring to the bullpen.

Jeremy Morton

March 2nd, 2012
3:54 pm

Wagner’s a great mentor. Considering his era is around 12 during the post season.

Kashi

March 2nd, 2012
4:07 pm

Can’t agree more. Manager knowing when to bring right reliever/closer AND leaving reliever to close some winable games is another important part of this game.

Herschel Talker

March 2nd, 2012
4:08 pm

Schultzie:

FIRE FREDI THE FAT FOOL!!!

HT

Winter of George

March 2nd, 2012
4:26 pm

19 days till Spring? But who’s counting?…hehehe

Winter of George

March 2nd, 2012
4:30 pm

Wagner, when put in a last game, last inning, possible GS situation like last year,throw your best stuff that got you there in the first place. Don’t get fancy…..let them try to beat you with your best.
You handed it to the Phillies and hence, the Cards in that last game.

Winter of George

March 2nd, 2012
4:31 pm

Sorry, I meant Kimbrell…not Wagner

Sonny Clusters

March 2nd, 2012
4:33 pm

Dawgdad, if we was designing a new flag for the outfield we’d hope it would be for at least a NL pennant and wouldn’t it be grand if it was for a World Series? However, if we was designing a 2nd wild card championship sign, we would probably make it polka dot. Then, we’d invite some little true fan that was excited about being the 2nd wild card to come help us hang it. We could have a ceremony and invite some country music star to write a song about baseball ends in August and Septermber’s for huntin’ deer. We read that the season’t too long for somebody on the team.

cowdogit

March 2nd, 2012
4:37 pm

Vegas odds that count predict braves fans are in for a long tough season.To many if’s to win anything.

JSS

March 2nd, 2012
4:37 pm

“Ten days later, with a 5-4 lead at Florida and two outs, Chipper Jones lost a chopper in the lights – it happens every 2,000 years”

Oh yeah? What’s the excuse for his infamous 1997 NLCS Game 1 error for the ages? Oh Chipper!

baseball been berry, berry good to me

March 2nd, 2012
4:38 pm

Jeff, who’s collecting the most groupies in spring training so far?
That’s what their really there for. Especially the married players/coaches.

Stinger2

March 2nd, 2012
6:08 pm

Clusters: Everyone knows you were spouting off some more
negative digs at Chipper in you last blog, i.e someone said the season is too long. Contrary to your feelings there is a move under way by those who appreciate what he has contributed to the Braves to recommend that he be named captain of the team.
Don`t you need to sign off and report for your shift at the Dairy Queen?

Sonny Clusters

March 2nd, 2012
6:19 pm

If we was a deer hunter we would probably spend a lot of time in the woods up on a tree stand waiting for a little deer to walk by so we could shoot it and hang his head on the wall in our house. We would use Clusters’ stealth in the woods so the little deer wouldn’t hear us moving around and thereby be alerted to our presence. In reality, when that little deer walked up we would line him up in our sights and then we would probably toss him an apple or some other deer treat and wish him good luck in the woods and tell him about fearsome Buck Commanders that he needs to watch out for because they will shoot first. That little deer might just set a trap of his own and catch an uh, Buck Commander of his own and hang his jersey up on a tree after getting it autographed.

South Bound And Down

March 2nd, 2012
6:52 pm

Motivation is a good thing folks,Kimbrell was money last year!
You’re a friggin sissy boy Sonny for making those comments!

abby normal

March 2nd, 2012
7:15 pm

Kimbrel and Venters were both over-used last season. Fredi better get it figured out this year or he’s gone (I hope).

OWB

March 2nd, 2012
7:31 pm

when will you write a piece on the saints bounty. disgusting organization just like it’s city. full of pos hood rats. see this

http://www.cnn.com/2012/02/29/justice/louisiana-good-samaritan/index.html?hpt=us_c2

bulldogbubba

March 2nd, 2012
7:37 pm

Clusters – behind all those “positive”comments I know that Stinger2 is a fan of yours.He always shows up on the blog asking you to talk about irrelevant things instead of the facts.I have noticed he never talks about anything but you. I wonder if he has a “man” crush on you because of your wisdom and “cat-like” reflexes. GO BRAVES!!!

Stinger2

March 2nd, 2012
7:47 pm

Clusters is nearing the end of his run as the self proclaimed champion of wit on these blogs. He has nothing new. His endless deer and Daily Queen stuff which he incorporates in his negative post about the Braves are old and worn out.

NRBQ

March 2nd, 2012
8:55 pm

It’d be a drag if Mr. Clusters left the AJC blogs (some of us know his real history here).

If you left, Stinger, there would be a waft of fresh air.

Turtsnap

March 2nd, 2012
9:04 pm

Wags a class act…. miss him, but glad we have Kimbrel and Venters

Bill

March 2nd, 2012
11:36 pm

Another great job Jeff…
Could you gets us a report on how Jeff Porter and his family is doing. I still pray for him and family. I’ve lost 3 family members in last 18 months..its tough. Thanks again.

extremus

March 3rd, 2012
3:22 am

Freddi Gonzalez had better not overuse Venters and Kimbrel like he did last year or it could cost more than the Braves’ season; it could literally shorten their careers. They did remarkably well considering their level of experience going in, but an arm can only take so much constant torque and strain. The lack of any decent offense sure didn’t help matters because it left no room for error, but Freddi’s predilection for going to Venters and Kimbrel night in/night out in one-run contests made for a time bomb, and it blew up the Braves’ season by the end of September.

GTT

March 3rd, 2012
6:35 am

Sonny is the Peanut Clusters Parfait named after you?

cowdogit

March 3rd, 2012
10:11 am

Why do the fans always criticize Fredi for the braves pitching problems? They seem to forget that Roger McDowell is the pitching coach.

Sonny Clusters

March 3rd, 2012
10:16 am

Don’t worry about this Clusters. We don’t let little things or little people bring us down. When we was playing ball we used to run into some detractors along the way because we could hit the long ball and they couldn’t. They talked bad about us but we know in their heart they wanted to hit the long ball, too. Sometimes, we think the Braves need to improve quite a bit – that they’re not really as good as they tell us they are. When we talk about that one or two “real” fans tell us we’re not supposed to rock the boat and accuse us of not being a fan. Well, we can promise you we are a Braves fan through and through but we think they owe the fans some better baseball and we especially think they need to acknowledge that they are not champions as presently or formerly constituted. We’ll let ‘em know when we think they are worthy to be called “champions” and that is not when they hoist the “wild card champions” sign in the outfield. As for our take on Chipper Jones . . . well, we’ve been watching him a long time and we know what he used to do and we know what he does now and we thank him for his service. We think the team built around him will never achieve. That’s our take and we welcome yours.

Mitchell

March 3rd, 2012
10:26 am

What about the year before last year’s ending? Remember, 2010? Giants vs. Braves?

Bobby Cox leaving Brooks at second in the 9th, taking Kimbrel out with a lead to bring in sorry @$$ Mike Dunn, ball through the legs of Conrad… game over, Braves lose?

How many “Learn from last year” articles should count on over the next five seasons?

Surely there’s more where this came from. But don’t worry, at least Braves fans are learning.

Well, some.

bulldogbubba

March 3rd, 2012
11:33 am

Well said Mr. Clusters.

Stinger2

March 3rd, 2012
12:24 pm

Clusters: There you go again talking about Chipper without
knowing the facts. The team is not built around Chipper.
The facts are that Chipper happens to have the longest tenure. Secondy, the team is presently built upon strong pitching. No one will argue that there are some question marks and weak spots such as lack of power from the corner outfield (unless Heyward rerurns to his 2010 season form) and the rookie Pastornicky at SS. If you just like to be critical don`t continue to beat up on Chipper, Fredi and the front office. Everyone knows your opinions by now. Please find something new about the Braves to criticize.

Sonny Clusters

March 3rd, 2012
1:21 pm

We are quitting blogging forever. We cannot reach the high standards of a “real” fan. Besides, he has become tiresome to us.

Sonny Clusters

March 3rd, 2012
1:27 pm

Of course we was just kidding. We’re going to ignore him again like we do our little cousin that comes over sometimes and finds ways to annoy us. Building around or not, we are fed a steady diet of Chipperisms and it is good he can turn on a fastball because his thoughts don’t seem to be very deep ones like somebody else who insists on trying to be our mama. We don’t need another mama telling us what to do. We outgrew that but then, we don’t live with our mama and it looks like somebody on here may and may be cranky because of it.

Braves Just AS LOUSY as Last Year!

March 3rd, 2012
4:39 pm

The Braves start off the same way as they ended last year – AS LOSER’S!

Larry

March 3rd, 2012
7:03 pm

Sonny,

Don’t stop…don’t EVER stop! These goobers on here that actually think Chipper and Fruiti have more than a double digit IQ’s are all cognitively handicapped.

They’re the guys we see with their beer guts hanging a foot or so over their belts.

They like to compare Chipper with Aaron or Murphy, but the last time I checked neither Aaron or Murphy, got married, screwed around on their first wife, had a kid with another women while married, and then met his second wife in a bar and married her just four months after his first wife divorced him. And you goobers call him a hero or “great.”

As for Fruiti, the poor guy can’t even remember the events of the game he just managed and will ask the reporters about the facts during his post-game interview. Wow!

Billy

March 3rd, 2012
7:20 pm

Is the woman he had a kid with while married–his second wife are not?

DetroitBraves

March 3rd, 2012
7:36 pm

Sonny, you’re right about Fredi, you’re right about the front office, and you’re right that several of those championships aren’t real championships. Nothing against Stinger, other than issues with you Stinger seems like a good enough apple, but keep on keepin’ on!! Yours is a more colorful way of saying what a lot of us are thinking.

Jed

March 4th, 2012
1:03 am

Crozet is not really that rural –its just a little ways outside charlottesville. Wagner has a farm about ten minutes from howie long.