•on November 30th, 2013
HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – Craig Kimbrel has batted only once in a professional game “and you’re about to see why,” as he grabbed a bat and headed toward the cage.
The Atlanta Braves’ reliever, who has led the National League in saves in each of his three seasons and who finished fourth in this year’s Cy Young Award balloting, spends his time taking bats out of hitters’ hands instead of swinging one himself.
But on Friday he was in a pair of home run derbies, first at his alma mater, Lee High School, then later with former Atlanta teammate Tim Hudson at Auburn. The festivities at Lee included an alumni game – Kimbrel couldn’t participate – and the retirement of Buddy Boshers’ No. 40 jersey. Boshers and Kimbrel were teammates at Lee; Boshers made his major league debut with the Los Angeles Angels of Anahein in August.
Kimbrel spoke on a few random subjects with The Alabama Media Group before taking his swings, including his upcoming arbitration. After three seasons in which the club typically has contract leverage, a player may go to arbitration. He was noncommittal on the process or price tag, simply saying, “We’ll know in February.”
On the loss of pitcher Tim Hudson to the Giants and catcher Brian McCann to the Yankees: “We kinda knew McCann was leaving. I think everybody knew that. Hudson, if the Braves offered him what the Giants offered, he’d still be in Atlanta. But they didn’t so he’s in San Francisco.”
On any potential Braves acquisitions: “I don’t pay attention that. I’ll just show up for spring training and meet the team there.”
On the announcement about a new stadium in Marietta: “It was kind of unexpected. Nobody saw it coming. It’ll be great for the organization to have their own ballpark and do what they want with it and build up around there. There are positives and negatives for everything but it’s good for the organization. And it’s closer to my house.”
On the offseason: “It’s definitely been a lot more busy. We’ve been traveling a lot more and we (Craig and wife Ashley) had a charity event. Hopefully it’ll slow down and I can enjoy the offseason a little more.”
On the charity event: “We ended up raising $60,000 for Curing Kids Cancer (a charity for which the Kimbrels serve as volunteers). It was “Cowboy Boots and Cocktails” (at the Fox Theater. We had Cole Swindell come sing and we had a silent auction and it was a good time.”
On anything else on the horizon: “I’ve just got that football game (he is an avid Alabama fan) to worry about this weekend.”
•on November 29th, 2013
ATLANTA — A little more than an hour before the Braves were scheduled to begin a game at Turner Field in August, Craig Kimbrel visited a group of cancer-stricken children he had invited to the stadium.
As he began to address the kids and their families who were seated at picnic benches located on the right-field concourse, the often stone-faced Braves closer found himself fighting back the tears that developed after as he looked at the group and saw a young boy who had lost vision in one eye.
Just a year earlier, while visiting children at an Atlanta-area hospital, Kimbrel had seen this same young boy going through his initial treatments after being with cancer.
“Seeing all of them and thinking about all that they have gone through, it kind of is emotional,” Kimbrel said. “When I was talking to them, I was thinking about it the whole time. That is really the reason I got choked up. It doesn’t hurt to show how you feel sometimes because they feel the same way and it’s good for them to know everybody else cares for them as much as well.”
The baseball world has come to recognize Kimbrel as the intimidating right-hander who stands as the only pitcher in Major League history to notch at least 40 saves during each of his first three full seasons. Clay and Grainne Owen have come to know Kimbrel as a kind-hearted, generous individual who has proven to be the perfect spokesperson for their charity, Curing Kids Cancer.
“We just feel so blessed,” Grainne said. “We really do. If I had written down all of the qualities I wanted in somebody, I couldn’t have found anyone any better.”
The Owens started their charity in 2004, one-year after their 9-year-old son Killian died of acute lymphocytic leukemia, which has become recognized as the most common and curable type of childhood cancer.
During his 4 1/2-year battle with this disease, Killian underwent chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. He also received experimental targeted treatment at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
Doctors performing this experimental treatment knew of a drug that had not yet received enough funding to be put through the necessary testing to gain approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration. The FDA granted these doctors permission to use this drug now recognized as Moxy, but only at a dosage that was essentially half of what Killian needed.
“As you can imagine, as a parent, that was the most awfully frustrating thing you could imagine,” Grainne Owen said. “There was a medicine there that might have helped and we just couldn’t get it to him and it was all just because of the money.”
Since establishing Curing Kids Cancer, with the mission to prevent other parents from having to deal with similar helpless heartaches, the Owens have raised between $3 million and $4 million that has been used to pediatric cancer research.
Kimbrel has donated $100 for every save and $25 for every strikeout to the charity. This has amounted to more than $14,000 in donations the past two seasons. In addition, the Braves closer and his wife, Ashley, raised $65,000 during the Cowboy Boots and Cocktails event they held in Atlanta earlier this month.
“God gave me the ability to play baseball at the highest level and to have the exposure that I do,” Kimbrel said. “So, I need to turn around and help others. We’re in a situation where we can do that and there is no reason we should not. The way I look at life is you shouldn’t turn and run the other way. You need to go and get things done, because if you don’t try to get things done, then nobody else will either.”
When Kimbrel was introduced to the Owens before the start of the 2012 season, he was moved by their story and desire to continue fighting after incurring a painful personal loss.
“That’s what drew me to this family, the fact that they had been through it,” Kimbrel said. “They fought the fight and were on the losing end of it and didn’t want to quit.”
Along with providing financial assistance, the Kimbrels have become even more invested while making hospital visits that allow them to be introduced to some of the children and families that they are trying to assist.
“I think people think celebrities stick their names on charities just to get visibility,” Grainne Owen said. “I’m sure that is the case with some of them. But that is certainly not the case with Craig. He and Ashley have jumped in and they want to know all about what we’re doing. They like to be kept informed about what is going on. They have met a lot of the children and they genuinely care about what we’re doing. I’ve seen Craig get choked up on more than one occasion when he talks about what we’re doing. He’s really invested in it.”
A little more than a year before being introduced to Kimbrel, the Owens were preparing for Christmas when they were informed three children who had been treated with Moxy — the drug their son had helped gain approval — had seen their leukemia go into complete remission.
Heartwarming stories like this stir Kimbrel’s emotional side and provide him even more motivation to aid the Owens as they attempt to prevent other families from having to deal with the heartache of burying a loved one, knowing that things might have turned out different had the finances been available to complete the research of a particular drug.
“Even if your family isn’t directly affected by cancer, if you have kids in school and one of their friends ends up getting it, that affects your child as well,” Kimbrel said. “It’s something that you don’t want your child to go through. It doesn’t just affect the children themselves, it affects everyone around them.”
To make a donation or to learn more about this charity, visit curingkidscancer.org.
•on November 22nd, 2013
ATLANTA — Craig Kimbrel was named Major League Baseball’s Delivery Man of the Year on Thursday afternoon. Kimbrel is the first member of the Braves’ organization to win this honor, which has been given annually to the game’s top closer since 2005.
Further establishing his dominance in this role, Kimbrel converted 50 of 54 save opportunities and posted a 1.21 ERA in 68 appearances. The 25-year-old right-hander’s 50 saves matched Baltimore’s Jim Johnson for the most in the Majors and made him the youngest closer to record this total.
Kimbrel began this past season in impressive fashion, converting nine of the 10 save opportunities he garnered in April. He proved human when he allowed a ninth-inning home run against David Wright on May 3 and back-to-back two-out home runs in a loss to the Reds four days later.
But after blowing a ninth-inning lead in both of those games, Kimbrel set a Braves franchise record by converting each of his next 37 save opportunities. In fact, he converted 40 of his final 41 opportunities on the way to becoming just the 11th pitcher to record a 50-save season.
During his final 54 appearances, Kimbrel posted a 0.54 ERA and limited opponents to a .151 batting average. Three of the four runs he surrendered in the 53 2/3 innings completed during this span were scored by the Nationals during the ninth inning of a Sept. 17 game in Washington.
Kimbrel stands as the only pitcher in Major League history to record 40 saves in each of his first three full seasons. Kimbrel leads the Majors with 138 saves during this span. Johnson ranks second with 110.
Kansas City’s Greg Holland and Texas’ Joe Nathan were the only other closers to receive votes for this year’s award.
•on October 11th, 2013
ATLANTA – The final image of Craig Kimbrel in the 2013 baseball season is one of abject frustration, hands on hips in the Atlanta bullpen beyond the leftfield fence of Dodger Stadium, helplessly watching as the Braves lost game five of the National League Division Series.
Kimbrel was eager to get into the game. But he’s traditionally the Braves’ ninth-inning pitcher and this was the eighth inning as Atlanta’s sensational season suddenly fizzled. He’s Atlanta’s relief ace, the National League leader in saves the past three years, tied for the major league lead with a career-high 50 this past season.
The 25-year-old, who played for Butch Weaver at Lee High School and then at Wallace State-Hanceville, is pretty much regarded in major league circles as the premier reliever in the game, with a fastball that was clocked at 100-mph in postseason and a paralyzing breaking pitch.
The season at end, he’s going about saves of even more importance. That’s where this story becomes about a youngster named Killian Owen.
“Killian was a real go-getter. He was always getting into trouble,” said his mother, Grainne. “If there was water, he’d fall into it. He had a great sense of humor. He lived life to the fullest. He and Craig would have loved each other. They’re very much alike.”
But Killian died in July 2003 at 9 years of age after battling Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. A chemotherapy drug had been invented that might have saved Killian, but doctors told Grainne and Clay Owen there was insufficient money to get the drug approved and into treatment.
“What motivated me,” Grainne said, “was to stop that from happening to other families. The thought that it was just money, I wanted to change that.”
The Owens formed the Atlanta-based Curing Kids Cancer. It raised nearly a half-million dollars for research in 2012. Lee Corso, the ex-coach and now the ebullient part of ESPN’s College Game Day, is the honorary chairman.
Kimbrel is the chairman of Players Curing Kids Cancer, with wife Ashley also heavily involved.
“He’s not just our chairman. He’s our friend. He believes in what we’re doing.” — Grainne Owen
“I’m the face, and she does all the work,” Kimbrel said.
He’s more than the face. He’s been a financial supporter and he’s hosting a Nov. 15 event at Atlanta’s Fox Theater called “Cowboy Boots and Cocktails,” with a dinner followed by a concert by country music singer Cole Swidell.
In late August, the Kimbrels hosted an event at Turner Field for children with cancer and their families. (See video of the event here).
And more than that, he and Ashley have “a very special relationship” with the Owen family, Grainne said.
“He’s not just our chairman. He’s our friend. He believes in what we’re doing and so does Ashley. That means the world to us. It’s so personal for our family. They’ve adopted us and they feel like a family to us, and I think it’s vice versa.”
Killian had a twin brother, Garrett, and two other siblings, Pierce and Finn, all of whom Kimbrel has befriended. Finn has even changed Kimbrel’s eating habits. Finn’s favorite hamburger is served with a fried egg on top, and he convinced Kimbrel to give that a try.
“They like him because he’s a regular guy and he cuts up with them and he doesn’t put on airs,” Grainne said. “And he gets all emotional when he talks about what we do.”
“They’re just caring people,” Kimbrel said, sitting in the Braves’ dugout before a game. “There’s already a treatment for what Killian died from because of the money they’ve raised. They could have put it behind them and said we’re going to move on, but they wanted to help other people. That’s why we’re involved with them.
“The Braves do a lot of things like go to hospitals and see kids, and that’s hard to do. But we know we’re lucky to do what we do, so any time we have a chance to give back, we’re definitely doing it.”
“Craig wanted to do something that would make a difference,” Grainne said. “And he’s been a blessing.”
Where it most counts, Kimbrel’s not standing there, hands on hips, hoping he can make a save. He’s trying to make that happen every day.
•on October 4th, 2013
ATLANTA — There was a brief pause in the eighth inning Friday, a few seconds tops, between the time Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez emerged from the dugout and time the bullpen door came swinging open. The first strains of “Welcome to the Jungle” had not yet blared over the stadium loudspeakers, rendering Turner Field all but silent.
Then, sensing Craig Kimbrel before actually seeing him, the home crowd suddenly burst into a roar. It drowned out Kimbrel’s entrance. It drowned out the first strains of Slash’s guitar. It drowned out just about everything in the zip code.
The best closer in baseball had arrived on the scene. Losing, Braves fans understood, was no longer much of an option.
“It’s one of those things where you always try to tell yourself to calm down,” Kimbrel said. “It’s a little bit easier said than done.”
For Kimbrel, “calm” was never on the menu. Summoned with two outs and the bases empty in the eighth inning of National League Division Series Game 2, Atlanta’s closer further frenzied the home crowd by retiring Dodgers third baseman Juan Uribe on a 101-mph fastball. He then worked around two walks in the ninth, hitting triple digits on eight of his 25 total pitches.
“I guess it did,” Kimbrel said when asked if the crowd played into his performance. “The scoreboard said so.”
Velocity aside, Kimbrel was somewhat unhappy with his first career postseason save, and for good reason: if not for a strong throw and tag to catch Dee Gordon stealing second base, the Dodgers might have come back to tie the game in the ninth. But because Gerald Laird fired a strike from behind the plate and Andrelton Simmons applied a tough tag — replays were inconclusive — Kimbrel was able to escape with a four-out save.
That was the plan all along for the Braves, who feel they can shorten games by going to Kimbrel in the eighth inning if the situation calls for it. By recording four outs Friday, Kimbrel notched the first multi-inning save by a Braves reliever since John Smoltz in Game 1 of the 2001 NLDS.
“It’s huge,” Kimbrel said. “Nobody wanted to go out to L.A. down two games. Tonight was huge in our minds. We knew we were going to have a tough game ahead of us and our guys showed up, played hard, and we got some big hits tonight. That’s what it came down to. We’re going out to LA, and hopefully we can keep that momentum going.”
•on September 25th, 2013
CHICAGO — Long before he established himself as baseball’s most dominant closer, Craig Kimbrel was assigned to write about his career ambition. When he wrote about his desire to play for the Atlanta Braves, his third-grade teacher made him redo the assignment, because she did not believe he should’ve viewed becoming a big league ballplayer as a realistic goal.
“My mom laughs about it all of the time,” Kimbrel said. “I don’t know if my mom has the paper or not. But it would be pretty cool to find it to see what I said back then.”
Like many other young boys who grew up in the Southeast over the past two decades, Kimbrel had visions of becoming the next Chipper Jones. But the Huntsville, Ala., native never dreamed he would actually become the man the baseball world now widely recognizes as the next Mariano Rivera.
As Rivera bids adieu to his illustrious Hall of Fame career, Kimbrel stands as the most likely candidate to spend the next decade-plus as baseball’s premier closer. Through the first 228 appearances of his career, the hard-throwing Braves right-hander has notched 138 saves and surrendered just 122 hits.
The saves-to-hits ratio is just one of the many ridiculous stats Kimbrel has created during the early years of his career. His 1.40 career ERA stands as the lowest mark produced by any Major League reliever with at least 225 appearances.
“He’s one of the most dominant pitchers I have ever seen,” third baseman Chris Johnson said. “He’s amazing. It’s weird. He’s like one of those guys when he gives up a hit, you’re thinking, ‘What happened?’”
There was certainly a feeling of disbelief last week when Kimbrel squandered a two-run ninth-inning lead against the Nationals and suffered his first blown save in more than four months while surrendering three runs in an appearance for the first time in his career. Of course, it should be noted that the only ball that left the infield during this outing was the game-ending grounder that slipped under Andrelton Simmons‘ glove, allowing two runs to score.
“Any time I go out there and don’t do my job, it’s a tough one to swallow,” said Kimbrel, who enters the regular season’s final week with a Major League-leading 49 saves.
Fortunately for the Braves, those instances when Kimbrel has blown a lead have been few and far between. Since becoming Atlanta’s closer at the start of his rookie season in 2011, the hard-throwing reliever has notched a 90.1 save percentage. Over the past two seasons, he has blown just seven of his 98 save opportunities.
Kimbrel spent much of the 2010 season at the Minor League level and then became a key cog in the Braves’ bullpen once September arrived. He proved effective enough to be used in each of the four games they played against the Giants during that year’s National League Division Series.
“Getting the chance to pitch in the  playoffs and have that adrenaline and the need to learn to pitch with that kind of pressure after having completed just 20 innings in the big leagues, I think that is why I have been able to handle myself a little better,” Kimbrel said.
Along with having a high-octane fastball and a knee-buckling curveball, Kimbrel possesses the stoic mindset that allows him to deal with the cruel nature of his role.
Pitching coach Roger McDowell first recognized this mindset when Kimbrel issued two walks and committed an error to load the bases with no outs in what was just his eighth career appearance, on June 20, 2010. The young reliever proceeded to strike out the next two batters — David DeJesus and Mike Aviles — he faced and then got Billy Butler to pop up to keep the game tied and give his teammates a chance to beat the Royals.
“Closers have a different personality,” McDowell said. “It’s just a different mentality that I don’t think can be taught. Either you have it or you don’t.”
After blowing a one-run ninth-inning lead in the must-win regular-season finale against the Phillies that ended the Braves’ September collapse in 2011, Kimbrel showed he has the mental resolve to handle the closer’s role from a mental perspective.
All Kimbrel did was come back last year and produce one of the most dominant seasons by a Major League reliever. Along with becoming the first pitcher to strike out more than half the batters he faced (116 of 231), he converted 42 of 45 save opportunities and compiled a 1.01 ERA. The .186 on-base percentage he surrendered ranked as the third-best mark in a season by a reliever. The only two better marks were notched by Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley in 1990 (.172) and ’89 (.175).
“Looking back on some of those numbers from last year, it’s still kind of hard to believe,” Kimbrel said. “Luck and good timing play a part.”
While Kimbrel has not been as utterly dominant as he was last year, he is approaching the postseason in the midst of an impressive stretch. Three of the five runs he has surrendered in his past 51 appearances scored during that forgettable inning against the Nationals last week.
During this 51-game stretch, Kimbrel has posted a 0.71 ERA, converted 39 of 40 save opportunities and limited opponents to a .240 on-base percentage. This impressive run began immediately after he allowed the Reds to hit back-to-back two-out homers in the ninth inning on May 7.
“What he has done is just incredible,” catcher Brian McCann said. “He’s doing stuff that has never been done before. He just keeps getting better.”
•on September 7th, 2013
New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera will retire at the end of the season with the most saves in MLB history, a whopping 649 and counting. Since taking over as the club’s full-time closer in 1997, he has recorded at least 28 saves in every season that he has made at least 45 appearances, which has happened all but once — last year. Former San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers closer Trevor Hoffman also posted some incredible numbers during his legendary 18-year career, which lasted from 1993-2010 and included one season of 50-plus saves, nine seasons of 40-plus saves and 13 seasons of 30-plus saves, resulting in a final tally of 601, second all-time behind Rivera. When all is said and done, they may both be looking up at another guy, because Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel is getting it done at a historic pace. After bursting onto the scene in the middle of the 2010 season and posting a 4-0 record and an 0.44 ERA in 21 appearances out of the Braves bullpen, Kimbrel was named the team’s closer to begin the 2011 campaign. The rest, as they say, is history. Over the past three years, the Huntsville, Ala. native has recorded 46, 42 and 44 saves — with three weeks left in the season, that final number is likely to increase — giving him 133 saves in 147 chances, which is a conversion percentage of 90.5 percent. In addition, his ERA has gone from 2.10 in 2011 to 1.01 last season and 0.94 so far this year, with each season being highlighted by an All-Star appearance. While the 25-year-old right-hander still has plenty of years left and could either improve even more or drastically decline, the fact that he is currently on pace to break records set by a pair of future Hall of Famers bodes very well for his own future. For instance, if Kimbrel were to average 40 saves over the next 14 seasons, which would give him the same number of years as Rivera and Hoffman, he would end up with an eye-popping 693 saves. Only time will tell, but he has been both dominant and durable thus far. And don’t even get me started on his hefty strikeout-to-walk ratio. Talk about eye-popping.