Wagner says Kimbrel looks ready for closer role

Newson November 19th, 2010No Comments

With Billy Wagner injured, the Braves could turn to rookie fireballer Craig Kimbrel as their primary closer. Wagner, for one, believes the 22-year-old Alabaman is ready to handle the role, even in postseason pressure.

“The hardest person to hit is somebody who gets a lot of swings and misses,” Wagner said, and that description certainly fit Kimbrel.

A baby-faced strikeout machine with a 96-97 mph fastball, Kimbrel had five strikeouts in 2-2/3 perfect innings during the first two games of the National League Division Series against San Francisco. During the regular season, he had a 0.44 ERA and .125 opponents’ average in 21 big-league appearances, with a whopping 40 strikeouts in 20-1/3 innings.
In the Braves’ 5-4, 11-inning win Friday in Game 2, Kimbrel struck out four batters while pitching perfect eighth and ninth innings at San Francisco, in front of the largest crowed ever at AT&T Park. “From what he’s showing right now, he’s probably mentally ready to be in that closer’s role, and continue to do what he’s doing right now,” Wagner said before Game 3 Sunday. “He’s exciting. He pounds that strike zone. He’s a tough guy to face right now.

“He has a rising fastball, and his breaking ball has probably been a little better than everybody expected. He can throw it ahead in the count, and he can throw it for a swing-and-miss pitch, too. So he kind of gives you that two-headed monster when he’s out there.”

During the season, left-handers hit .176 (6-for-34) against Kimbrel, with seven walks and 18 strikeouts. Righties hit .079 (3-for-38) with nine walks and 22 strikeouts. Opponents went 2-for-30 with runners in scoring position during the season, with eight walks and 19 strikeouts. With two strikes, they were 3-for-50 (.060) with five walks and 40 strikeouts.
Craig the K only got better as the season wore on, despite going back and forth between the majors and Triple-A. He walked three in his third big-league appearance May 15, then did this in his next 20, including the first two NLDS games: 21 innings, seven hits allowed, zero earned runs, 11 walks, 41 strikeouts. That’s two strikeouts per inning, and one hit per three innings. In 12 regular-season appearances at Turner Field, Kimbrel allowed a .071 average (3-for-42) with 25 strikeouts and no extra-base hits. In 14 games in September and October, including postseason, opponents were hitting .091 against him (4-for-44) with four singles, 28 strikeouts and five walks.

“I think when he came up earlier in the year, he was probably a little bit overwhelmed,” Wagner said. ” When he came back [from Triple-A] the second and third time, he was a different kid. I mean, he was mentally ready to be in this bullpen.”

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