His early-season inconsistency seems a fading memory now, as Braves rookie Craig Kimbrel has become baseball’s most dominant closer.
The baby-faced flamethrower converted his 40th save Tuesday in a 5-4 win against the Chicago Cubs, matching the major league rookie saves record set last season by Neftali Feliz of the Texas Rangers. Kimbrel has not given up a run, earned or otherwise, in more than two months, and led the majors in saves and strikeouts for relievers with an astounding 103 in 62 2/3 innings.
“I’ll look back on it at the end of the year,” the 23-year-old said of his accomplishments. “Right now I’m just worried about helping us win and helping us get to the playoffs and through the playoffs.”
Kimbrel began Wednesday with a remarkable 31 1/3-inning scoreless streak over 32 appearances since June 11, during which he allowed 12 hits and 10 walks with 55 strikeouts.
He gave up a two-out bloop hit to Aramis Ramirez in the ninth Tuesday, then struck out pinch-hitter Tyler Colvin with Ramirez at second to finish the Braves’ sixth consecutive win and convert his 22nd consecutive save.
“He’s just so composed,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “He’s not just a fastball guy anymore. He threw three breaking balls to the last guy. He’s learning. He’s getting better.
“He’s been terrific, really.”
The last run scored against Kimbrel was June 11 at Houston. Gonzalez used Jonny Venters in two save situations that week, when Kimbrel had been shaky in several outings and Venters was the National League’s hottest reliever.
At the time, Kimbrel had a 3.38 ERA and five blown saves in 23 opportunities.
After considering making a change and having Venters at least split the closer duties with Kimbrel, Gonzalez decided to keep Kimbrel in the primary closer role.
Before Wednesday, Kimbrel’s scoreless streak was 2 2/3 innings shy of Philadelphia starter Cliff Lee’s longest in the majors this season. No other reliever has as many as 85 strikeouts, and Kimbrel’s 14.56 strikeouts per nine innings was more than three runs above the NL’s next-highest.