Braves’ Craig Kimbrel holds one camp, headed to another

Newson January 31st, 2011No Comments

Craig Kimbrel didn’t have baseball camps to attend. Just a baseball field nearby where he could all but camp out. From where he grew up, you could see the lights of Optimist Park. Just the other day, Craig and his father Mike were reminiscing about it. “He’d give us chores when we were little. But if we went to the ballpark, we didn’t have chores,” Kimbrel said. “So we went to the ballpark every day. We lived at the park.”

On Saturday, dozens of young players got to avoid their chores. They got to meet Kimbrel, 22, a former Lee High player now a burgeoning ace in the Atlanta Braves’ bullpen, and receive instruction from him at a clinic at D1 Sports. To the campers, his message was to “let them know it’s possible you can make it where I am now,” he said. “I’ve had fun,” said Kimbrel, taking a break to autograph a stack of souvenir photos for the campers as they scarfed down pizza. “I love to teach kids. They all have questions. Most of it’s just basic stuff. I remember a kid asking how I could throw so hard.”

That’s a question more than a few adults – including some adults who earn a living in major league baseball – asked last summer after facing his 95-mph fastball and wicked slider.

Kimbrel doesn’t have an imposing build. He’s listed at 5-11, 205 pounds. Yet after making his major league debut last May and dividing time between the Braves and their Class AAA farm team, Kimbrel struck out 40 of the 88 big-league batters he faced, allowing a .125 batting average and a 0.44 ERA. He made four playoff appearances, striking out seven in 4 1/3 innings. Saturday’s clinic culminated what he called a “non-stop” January that will trundle into a non-stop February. The Braves pitchers congregate in Atlanta on Monday for “Camp Roger,” the preseason throwing program conducted by pitching coach Roger McDowell.

Kimbrel will make some public appearances during the week on the annual Braves’ Caravan to meet with fans in the Atlanta area and throughout the Southeast. Then, finally, to spring training on the Walt Disney World campus outside Orlando on Feb. 14. With the retirement of closer Billy Wagner, Kimbrel is considered by many as the heir apparent to that role.

“The way I’m looking at it, I’m going to spring training and I’m not going out there thinking about winning a job. I’m going out there thinking about pitching well,” he said. “If I pitch well, the job will come.

“Unless they tell you it’s your job, nobody has a job locked up. Of course I want the job, but it’s not guaranteed. Unless you earn it, you don’t deserve it.” It’s been a meteoric rise already for Kimbrel. He was a pitcher and third baseman at Lee, then signed to play at Wallace State-Hanceville, where he dramatically blossomed. Twenty-three months after the Braves made him their No. 3 pick in 2008, he was in the majors.

“In a sense, that’s been good. I haven’t had a lot of time to think about things. I just go and react and do it. I’m learning stuff as I go,” he said. “I go in there every day trying to learn something.” On Saturday, Kimbrel put the learning aside for a moment and did some teaching. “Very tiring,” he said of the camp. But hardly a chore.

Contact Mark McCarter at mark.mccarter@htimes.com

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