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Kimbrel content to work out kinks in Gwinnett
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LAWRENCEVILLE — Millions of young boys all across the world dream of one day playing for their favorite major league baseball team. They stand in the yard, bat in hand, while a best friend throws pitch after pitch.

Each time they say they are hitting for the Braves, the Yankees or the Cardinals, and try to smack the ball as far as possible while imagining the roar of a crowd as they trot imaginary bases.

Some stand in front of that batter and say they are pitching for those same teams and try their best to make sure whoever is standing over the imagined home plate doesn’t hit the ball.

For 22-year-old pitcher Craig Kimbrel, those dreams of youth have become reality.

Growing up in Huntsville, Ala., Kimbrel knew only one baseball love growing up: the Atlanta Braves. And now he pitches for them.

Some of the time.

After Jair Jurrjens was put on the disabled list May 5 due to a hamstring injury, Kimbrel was called up from Triple-A Gwinnett to fill a gap in the bullpen.

While not particularly excited that his first major league opportunity came due to another player’s injury, Kimbrel could not repress his excitement at finally stepping onto the grass at Turner Field.

“I’m not really happy that someone had to go down for me to get a shot, but I’ve always been a Braves fan,” Kimbrel said. “Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve loved the Braves, so getting a chance to put that jersey on and step on that field was amazing.”

He remained with the Braves for a total of 17 days before being optioned back to Gwinnett on May 22. During that span, Kimbrel threw three innings, going 1-0 while giving up four hits, one earned run, six walks and striking out five.

By his own admission, Kimbrel didn’t pitch as well as he’d hoped.

“I’m frustrated that I wasn’t pitching as well as I wanted to, giving up too many walks and stuff,” he said. “My control wasn’t where I know it has to be to produce at that level.”

Despite his battle with control during his first run with Atlanta, Kimbrel had to wait only 13 days before getting the call again, heading back to the big leagues June 4 when Takashi Saito was put on the DL, also for a hamstring injury.

During his second stint in the bigs, Kimbrel’s desire to stay with the Braves was clear. He went 1-0 with a 0.00 ERA, giving up only four walks while striking out 10 in five innings pitched.

“I felt a little more in command during this last time (with Atlanta),” he said. “I felt like I was starting to understand how to pitch for a major league team.”

The strongest, and weakest, moment of those five innings came June 30 against the Kansas City Royals.

With Kenshin Kawakami out of the game in the second inning, manager Bobby Cox turned to the bullpen. Kimbrel took the mound in the eighth, and immediately put himself in a hole. After walking the first two batters he faced, Kimbrel committed an error to load the bases with no outs.

During those first three at-bats, Kimbrel said he was “a little too excited” and he let “adrenaline get the best” of him.

But then the young right-hander settled down. With a mix of his fastball (which can hit 98 on the gun) and a deceptive curveball that resembles a slider, Kimbrel struck out the next two batters and got the third to pop out to end the inning. The Braves went on to win the game 8-5 and complete a three-game sweep of the Royals.

“That was a big moment for me,” he said. “When I got that last out, the whole stadium exploded. It was the best moment I’ve had on the mound so far.”

The big moment wasn’t enough to keep Kimbrel on the big stage; he was optioned back to Gwinnett last Tuesday when Saito returned from the disabled list.

Despite bouncing back-and-forth between Atlanta and Gwinnett, Kimbrel hasn’t become discouraged.

“I understand my role right now. I understand that there are guys in front of me,” he said. “All I can do is go out there and pitch and not have to worry about what else is going on.”

In fact, Kimbrel is still ecstatic that he gets to play for the team he loved growing up.

“It’s my dream job,” he said. “It’s anybody’s dream job.”

His optimism may have merit, Braves’ manager Bobby Cox stated that Kimbrel wouldn’t have many chances to pitch in the seventh, eighth and ninth inning with the bullpen back to full strength and that the 205-pounder would benefit more from the constant work he would see in Gwinnett.

Kimbrel agrees with Cox, stating that gaining experience is the most important thing for him right now.

“It’s just the little stuff that I need time to fix,” he said. “I just need time to pitch as much as possible and get more consistent control.”

As to the future, Kimbrel has a strong chance to replace Billy Wagner in the closer role next season. Wagner, who turns 39 in July, signed a one-year deal with the Braves in the offseason and is expected to retire after the 2010 campaign.

Kimbrel is excited about the possibility of taking over as the Braves closer.

“I love closing games. All the pressure is on you and I just love it,” he said. “I hope I put myself in that situation and that they give me a chance to do that.”

While he has yet to make his first appearance since rejoining Gwinnett, Kimbrel expects to get a lot of work in the coming weeks.

“I will get more work in Triple-A than I would in the majors, and I’m happy for that opportunity,” he said.
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