We’ve said it a lot, but it bears repeating: Craig Kimbrel’s first full season in the majors has surpassed all reasonable expectations. Sheer dominance is what we’ve witnessed from a 23-year-old whose stuff is the epitome of what folks in the game call “electric.”
The rookie closer has met or exceeded the soaring 2010 performance of his mentor, Billy Wagner, in Wags’ lone season with the Braves before the flamethrowing lefty retired to his Virginia farm. And how many of us really believed that — Kimbrel matching him this soon — was possible?
Kimbrel’s final pitch last night was a 100-mph fastball that blew past hot-hitting Michael Morse of the Nationals, after Kimbrel started him off with fastballs at 98 and 99 mph followed by two sliders at 89 and 90.
It was the second strikeout of a perfect ninth inning that gave Kimbrel his majors-leading 41st save, surpassing the rookie record of 40 set last season by Rangers closer Neftali Feliz, a former Braves prospect.
Morse swung and missed on three pitches– two fastballs and a slider – during that final at-bat, becoming the 59th strikeout for Kimbrel during a remarkable scoreless streak of 33-2/3 innings over 34 appearances dating to June 14.
The numbers during that streak are staggering: Kimbrel has allowed 12 hits and 10 walks with 59 strikeouts. He’s converted all 23 of his save opps during that stretch.
Cliff Lee’s 34-inning scoreless streak for Philly earlier this season is the longest in the majors in 2011.
Chipper Jones has seen a lot of Braves closers, from Wohlers and Rocker to Smoltz and Wagner, and seen a lot of special young pitchers develop in the Braves organization. So I asked Chipper last night a simple question: Can you believe what Kimbrel has done this season?
“No, I really can’t,” he said. “It’s really amazing how big a strides he’s made since last year. Up and down last year, struggled with the control … to have really fine-tuned everything between then and now is really quite commendable.”
He smiled before adding, “It helps that you throw 98 [mph]. But he’s mastered two pitches. And when you throw 98 and you can throw a slider off of it at 90, it’s tough to hit.”
Morse is 9-for-22 with three homers in five games against the Braves this month, but he was no match for Kimbrel. By the way, in 10 career appearances against the Nats, all one-inning stints, Kimbrel has struck out at least two batters nine times.
Since mid-June it hasn’t mattered what uniform the opponent has worn.
Kimbrel’s streak began after he gave up three runs in consecutive two-hit appearances June 8 and June 11. Since then, he has allowed more than one hit in just one appearance, and held opponents to a .108 batting average.
Kimbrel has 107 strikeouts this season, 20 more than any other major league reliever. (Jonny Venters is third in the majors with 83).
Kimbrel’s majors-leading 14.66 strikeouts per nine innings is more than three strikeouts higher than the next-best ratio in the National League.
The O’Ventbrel trio of Kimbrel (1.64 ERA) and teammates Eric O’Flaherty (1.21) and Venters (1.31) accounts for three of the five lowest ERAs among NL relievers.
This is special stuff, folks. And the rookie at the back end of the ‘pen is having a performance for the ages – at age 23, in his first full season in the majors.
♣ Today’s lineup: It’s a different look, with slumping Martin Prado and Freddie Freeman each getting a rest and Jose Constanza in left field for just his third start since spraining his right ankle on Aug. 22 at Chicago when he stepped on the side of first base.
Constanza is in left field and Eric Hinske is at first base, with Jason Heyward in right.
Not coincidentally, Eric Hinske is 13-for-32 (.406) with two homers against tonight’s Nationals starter, Chien-Ming Wang. Against Wang, Brian McCann is 3-for-6; McCann gets the start tonight catching Tim Hudson.
Dan Uggla is 2-for-3 with a homer against Wang.
Couple of Braves have struggled lately: Prado is 2-for-26 (.077) with one 1 RBI and a .172 OBP in his past seven games. McCann is 2-for-25 (.080) with two homers, four RBIs and a .179 OBP in his past seven games.
McCann’s only hits were two homers Aug. 25 at Chicago, the day he said he felt like he got his swing back after working in the cage that morning and having something click. He’s played only two games since.
Since returning from the DL, McCann has seven hits, four of which were homers. He’s 7-for-48 (.146) in 13 games in that period.
And speaking of Constanza, since his two-hit game Aug. 22 at Chicago, he’s gone hitless in eight at-bats in four games over eight days.
♣ Offensive offense: The Braves are 2-3 with a .179 average, 4.19 ERA and 15 runs scored in their past five games, including six homers.
Meanwhile, the Nationals 1-7 despite 3.19 ERA in past eight games. They’ve hit .246 with 11 homers and 23 runs in that period, with nine of those runs coming in Monday’s win against the Braves.
The Nationals have scored three runs or fewer six times in that stretch, and gone 0-5 in games decided by two or fewer runs.
Chipper Jones is is 22-for-60 (.367) with three doubles, five homers and 11 RBI in his past 17 games, with a .400 OBP and .667 slugging percentage…. Newly acquired Braves INF Jack Wilson was 12-for-32 with five doubles and four RBIs in his last nine games before going on the DL (bruised heel). The Braves will activate him Friday. Wilson hit just .249 with eight doubles, no homers and 11 RBIs this season in 173 at-bats for Seattle, with a .283 OBP, and .279 slugging. However, he was 11-for-35 (.314) with 11 RBIs with runners in scoring position, and hit .304 (14-for-46) with five doubles and six RBIs as a shortstop…. Washington’s Danny Espinosa, once a leading candidate for rookie of the year, has hit .187 (28-for-150) with two homers, four RBIs and a .538 OPS in his past 39 games. This after hitting .248 with 17 homers, 55 RBIs and an .808 OPS in 95 games through July 17.