Kimbrel ready to pick up where Wagner left off

KISSIMMEE, FLA. (AP) - Craig Kimbrel refuses to put the title with his name.

“I’m not the closer right now,” the 22-year-old said, standing at his locker after a spring training workout for the Atlanta Braves.

He might be the only one thinking that way.

Kimbrel was downright dominating during the final month last season, blowing away hitters with a fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s, a version of the knuckle curve that he throws nearly as hard as a slider, and just enough wildness to keep hitters from getting real comfortable at the plate.

With Billy Wagner retired to his farm in Virginia, all signs point to Kimbrel taking over the vital ninth-inning role for Atlanta.

Even Jonny Venters, another contender for the job, figures there’s little chance of beating out the young right-hander.

“I think Kimbrel has probably got that job sewed up pretty good,” Venters told a reporter. “I mean, his stuff is crazy good. You saw him throw last year. He’s special.”

Special, indeed.

Kimbrel gave a glimpse of his potential early in the season when called up by the Braves, striking out 15 in 8 1-3 innings while allowing just four hits and a run. But his control was, well, out of control.

He was too pumped up. His delivery was too inconsistent. After walking 10 and needing a staggering 182 pitches to get through those eight short appearances, he wasn’t surprised when the team shipped him back to Triple-A for more seasoning.

“I was everywhere,” Kimbrel recalled. “I had no idea where the ball was going. But I had guys like Billy Wagner help me out. He told me to take some breaths, to think about what you’re doing before you do it. I started to do that, and it helped a lot.”

When called up again in late August, with the Braves in the thick of a playoff race, he was ready.

“My mindset was a little different. My mind was more in control,” Kimbrel said. “You’ve got to have the mental game more than the physical game. There’s a lot of guys out there who have all the stuff, who just mentally can’t put it together. I was fortunate enough to do that.”

Kimbrel gained such trust from then-manager Bobby Cox that he pitched in all four games of the tense NL Division Series against the San Francisco Giants.

“That’s when I felt like I belonged,” Kimbrel said. “That’s when I felt like things were clicking.”

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