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.”