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With Wagner injured, the rookie was even sent out in the ninth inning of crucial Game 3, needing three outs for a save that would’ve given the Braves a 2-1 lead in the series. He didn’t get a chance to finish it, yanked after surrendering a two-strike, two-out hit that kept the inning going.

Cox went with left-hander Mike Dunn for matchup purposes, and he allowed the game-tying hit. Then Brooks Conrad made his third error of the game, allowing the winning run to score.

Kimbrel was denied the glory. Still, it was a valuable learning experience.

“Yes, I was a little nervous, but I didn’t let it affect me,” he recalled. “As soon as I stepped on the mound and started pitching, I was just pitching. It was just another game. I knew it was big, but I knew if I didn’t let it get to me, just try to execute what I was trying to do, things would come out good.”

Fredi Gonzalez, who took over as manager for the retired Cox, insists he hasn’t made up his mind about the closer job.

The 25-year-old Venters had a brilliant rookie season out of the bullpen, and he was with the team all season. The left-hander surprised even himself by making the team in spring training, and gradually worked his way into a setup role for Wagner.

While not as dominating as Kimbrel, Venters certainly displayed closer-like stuff over his 79 appearances _ 83 innings, 93 strikeouts and only 61 hits.

“Last year, I came into camp without any expectations. I just wanted to make a good impression,” said Venters, who went 4-4 with one save and a 1.95 ERA. “This year is a little different. I’ve got some expectations now. I’m fighting for a role. I’m excited about it.”

Gonzalez would prefer to pick one closer, but having a righty and a lefty battling for the job gives the new manager some options. He recalled Cox going with a dual arrangement a few years ago when the Braves had Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez.

“These things usually take care of themselves,” Gonzalez said. “But hopefully, it won’t take care of itself. That means they’re both pitching lights out. Then we can mix and match.”

If nothing else, pitching in so many high-pressure games last season prepared both Kimbrel and Venters to take over the finishing role.

“They experienced a pennant race,” Gonzalez said. “They were thrown right into the mix, and both guys handled it real good. Those games against the Giants, that experience, you can’t simulate that in Triple A.”

Both Kimbrel and Venters gave props to the guy they are trying to replace. Wagner finished his career with a brilliant season (7-2, 1.43, 37 saves), putting up numbers that will be awfully tough to match.

“You can’t fill his shoes,” Kimbrel said.

Added Venters: “I’m still kind of hoping Billy comes back, to be honest with you. He was that good.”