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