- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 15, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - Spotless through the summer, Craig Kimbrel struggled in the stretch. The newest NL Rookie of the Year intends to learn from a particular late-season blemish.

The Atlanta Braves‘ closer unanimously won the award Monday, with Tampa Bay pitcher Jeremy Hellickson emerging from a talented crop to take the AL honor.

“It definitely did surprise me,” Kimbrel said on a conference call from his vacation in Hawaii. “I expected it to be close.”

The AL Cy Young Award will be announced Tuesday. Detroit ace Justin Verlander is expected to easily win.

“He’s the best pitcher in the game,” Hellickson said.

Kimbrel set a major league record for saves by a rookie with 46. He earned all 32 first-place votes in balloting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America and outpointed Braves teammate Freddie Freeman.

The hard-throwing righty was dominant for much of the year and chosen as an NL All-Star during his streak of 38 straight appearances without allowing a run. But that string ended in mid-September and the 23-year-old Kimbrel was wobbly as the Braves frittered away a 10 1/2-game lead in the NL wild-card race.

Kimbrel’s eighth blown save of the year came in the final game of the season, when he walked three, gave up a hit and allowed the tying run in the ninth inning against Philadelphia. The Phillies went on to win in the 13th, costing the Braves a spot in a one-game playoff against St. Louis for the wild-card slot.

“I blew many saves throughout the year. It just so happened that one came in the last game of the year with everything on the line,” he said. “My control was not there, I was all over the place.

“I’m going to get over it, but I’m not going to forget it,” he said. “I need to fix it.”

Kimbrel struck out 127 in only 77 innings and anchored Atlanta’s outstanding bullpen, pitching 79 games. He was 4-3 with a 2.10 ERA, and his long scoreless span covered 37 2-3 innings.

“I did learn that the season is long,” he said.

Kimbrel wound up tied for Milwaukee’s John Axford for the NL lead in saves. He became the 10th unanimous NL rookie winner, and first since Albert Pujols in 2001. Kimbrel was the seventh Braves player to win the award that began in 1947, and first since Rafael Furcal in 2000.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement,” Kimbrel said.

Kimbrel, who pitched 21 games in 2010 but still retained his rookie eligibility by throwing under 50 innings, earned 160 points in the BBWAA balloting. Freeman, who hit .282 with 21 home runs and 76 RBIs, was second with 21 second-place votes and 70 points. Kimbrel and Freeman became the first pair of teammates to finish 1-2 in the NL rookie voting since Cubs outfielders Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith in 1989.

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