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Kimbrel ready to pick up where Wagner left off
Atlanta Braves pitcher Craig Kimbrel throws during spring training Tuesday in Kissimmee, Fla. - photo by David J. Phillip

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — 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."

With Wagner injured, the rookie was even sent out in the ninth 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."

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