Braves' Kimbrel geared up for September

Braves' Kimbrel geared up for September

Published Aug. 29, 2012 8:22 a.m. ET

Craig Kimbrel pitched Tuesday night, which normally wouldn’t seem like a big deal, but considering how quiet his month has been, it’s news.

Kimbrel closed Kris Medlen’s latest win – a 2-0 victory over San Diego – in typical spectacular fashion, striking out the side in the ninth to render a leadoff single useless to the Padres’ cause. There was nothing unusual about Kimbrel’s appearance except for one thing: He actually pitched.

Don’t worry about overuse this year. There have been times this month when I’ve wondered if Kimbrel was still on the team. I hope somebody didn’t need to stir him to action last night. 

“Hey! Wake up! The season isn’t over yet. We need you. Right now!”

That’s how seldom he’s been used in August, and the bullpen can be a quiet place for a nap.

Nobody can criticize Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez for squeezing that last bit of effectiveness out of Kimbrel this year. The young closer has pitched in eight games this month – and if you face challenges counting to 31 – the calendar is about to flip from August to September.

Eight appearances?

For one of the best closers in baseball?

In the heat of a pennant race?

Yes. Yes. And yes. It’s just worked out that way this month.

Tuesday was Kimbrel’s second save opportunity since Aug. 3, with all of his work coming in games won by the Braves. He has pitched in one tied game, but the bulk of his work has been in situations where the Braves’ lead has been too great to qualify him for a save.

It’s been a bizarro workload for Kimbrel, a guy intimately familiar with pitching in the tightest of situations. He’s used to working every night, facing crushing pressure, toeing the tightrope of tension, when mistakes cost more than wins; they cause teams to miss the playoffs.

This time last year, Kimbrel had pitched in 63.2 innings in 65 games. By the start of September, he was up to 65.2 innings in 67 games, a pace that led to his worst month in the majors, one that every single Brave wants purged from their mental hard drive.

He had little left for that crucial month and allowed six runs, nine hits and seven walks in 11.1 innings in the final month, resulting in a 4.76 ERA and three blown saves. 

The last one occurred on the season’s final day, all but sealing the Braves’ fifth straight loss as they whiffed at what had once seemed like a certain playoff spot.

“It doesn’t bother me at all,” Kimbrel said earlier this year. “I really don’t even think about it. Of course, I don’t want it to end like that this year. I want to be put in the same exact situation, because that means we’re playing winning baseball and we’re in the situation we want to be in. I want another shot to go at it. I don’t let it get me down or anything. It just pushes me to want to get back to that situation again.”

It’s obvious Kimbrel is much more rested, but not rusty, this year. There was so little left of him and bullpen buddies Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters by the time September rolled around last year, it’s easy to see why the Braves slumped at the wrong time.

And while O’Flaherty and Venters haven’t been as effective this season as last, they will continue to be the bridge from starter to Kimbrel should the Braves encounter close games next month.

The decreased workload has only increased Kimbrel’s ability to vex hitters with his radar-gun busting fastball and knee-bending curve. 

He went from May 15 to Aug. 2 without walking anyone, he gave up one run in June and another in July, but none in August. He’s allowed 11 runners in his past 34 innings and his 1.13 ERA is the lowest it’s been since April 25.

Kimbrel won’t approach last year’s strikeout totals – 127 in 77 innings – but his 86 in 48 innings show why he’s third in the NL with 32 saves.

His innings likely will cap around 60 this year, a significant, and needed, decrease from 2011. And that means Kimbrel’s lessened load will matter most when it matters most.

Next month.