Craig Kimbrel hits 400 saves and could be the last pitcher to do so

Kimbrel may become the latest member of the exclusive storybook club on the evening of storybook originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

ATLANTA — Rob Thomson was still choked half an hour after Craig Kimbrel drove a ground ball to third base that made the Phillies first-year reliever the club’s eighth member of 400 saves on Saturday night.

It was a storybook scenario.

It was the same city where Kimbrel’s potential Hall of Fame career began 14 seasons ago. He came with the Braves and spent his first five years in Atlanta, posting several of the most dominant seasons in MLB history for a drawdown.

Kimbrel led the National League in saves every year from 2011 to 2014 and left the Braves with a 1.43 ERA.

More than a decade later, he was back on a mound in Atlanta, looking to do what he had done 399 times before in the regular season.

That number, 400, was never really a goal for him. It’s one of those things that happens when you do your job week after week, year after year.

“I wouldn’t say it was a target,” he said. “It was just one year at a time, one stop at a time, because we don’t know what tomorrow has in store for us. I’m happy to have done this 400 times.

“I knew if I was closing games I was hoping to get 35-40 a year. That’s about it. How the number goes up or how many I get every year or see that happen, do the numbers , No, not al all .”

The first nine seasons of Kimbrel’s career were ridiculous. He saved 333 games with a 1.91 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 336 more strikeouts than innings pitched.

But the last five years have not been so rosy. Kimbrel struggled in 2019 and 2020 with the Cubs. He dominated the first half of 2021 but was unable to perform as he wanted after a mid-season trade to the White Sox, where he settled for Liam Hendriks.

The White Sox traded Kimbrel to the Dodgers for outfielder AJ Pollock just before the start of the 2022 season and his experience in Los Angeles has been turbulent. He saved 22 games and his ERA was better than the league average, but he lost his closest job at the end of the year.

The Phillies signed him on Jan. 4, but it was unclear what role he would fill. Will it close? Would he be part of a committee? Would he settle down? The Phils had four viable closer candidates in Kimbrel, Jose Alvarado, Seranthony Dominguez and Gregory Soto. The role Kimbrel found himself in for the past six weeks or so was far from guaranteed. He became the de facto closest unless the opposition had several left-handers expected in the ninth.

“I just showed up to be ready,” he said. “I know last year in Los Angeles I did a lot of bad things, but I also did some things well. I had a lot of bad outings, but it’s just about controlling those bad ones. outings and not letting them become bad habits. I feel like, for the most part, I’ve been able to do a good job so far this year. If I’ve had a bad outing, I was able to come back ready to attack and not try to snack I realize if I’m up there snacking I’m gonna be in trouble I better let him eat and see what they can do it.

It worked because the Kimbrel stuff played in May. His speed has increased and this has made his breaking ball more effective because hitters have to chase him more than they do when ahead in the count. He was also able to throw it for strikes.

“A lot,” wide receiver JT Realmuto said of Kimbrel’s improving gear since the early days of the season. “Even he would say himself that he didn’t feel like he had the zip on his fastball. He didn’t control the ball very well. His breaking ball was a ball almost every time. Now he Does a really good job. His speed It comes out of his hand well. He gets the better of his fastball when he picks it up. That’s when he’s really good. That’s when he throws a fastball up the top of the line. zone to any hitter and they rarely get there.”

Kimbrel is as relaxed and balanced as possible. You don’t hit 400 stops without that kind of attitude. Some pitchers feed on emotion. Kimbrel is more low-key, and it wasn’t until the finale was taped that he let himself feel the magnitude of the moment.

It helped to be able to enjoy it with “30 to 40” friends and family members. The Kimbrels are originally from Hunstville, Alabama and Craig now lives in Tennessee. Both locations are between 3 and 3 1/2 hours from Atlanta. It lined up perfectly.

“My brothers, my parents, close friends of the family, they’ve been supporting me forever,” he said. “They put in a lot of emotion, a lot of time to support me. A lot of them were out there saying it was weird celebrating here in Atlanta. It brought back a lot of memories of hanging out with the same band. people in the tunnel after the game and catch-up.”

It was a big win for the Phillies over their division’s first-place team. Although the Phils eliminated the Braves from the 2022 playoffs, Atlanta is still class in the division with five consecutive NL East crowns and what looks like another in 2023.

Friday’s victory tied the series with two more games this weekend. A lot of good things have happened for the Phillies. Bryson Stott and Trea Turner set the table high and Stott wreaked havoc on the base paths. Taijuan Walker made a quality start against the National League’s top roster. Stott and Alec Bohm made one-on-one defensive plays that saved the run and changed the game.

But still, Night became the last man on the mound. There may never be another closer with 400 stops. Edwin Diaz has the best shot among active players and he is at 205 at 29.

“When guys reach milestones like that, it’s just emotional for me because I know how hard they work, how long they’ve been playing and how tough this game is,” Thomson said. “So that’s really cool for me.

“Tenacity. Resilience. The ability to have a short memory. You’re the last guy on the mound. You’re in the spotlight. When you (take a break), you have to come back the next day and do it again. To be able to do that, you have to be mentally tough. He was a great pitcher wherever he pitched.

Kimbrel has been around for so long that Stott later remembered using it in video games growing up. Now he plays behind him.

“I was a big Chipper Jones fan,” Stott said. “I was number 10 in high school and college, minors. So I’ve seen a lot of Craig. It’s just kind of surreal to play with someone like that now. Playing with him in games video and stuff, it’s kinda crazy looking out there and it’s actually him. But what an achievement, 400 saves, that’s crazy. He’s a great teammate and I love being around him. It couldn’t be not happen to a better person.”

The Phillies took a night off to celebrate but the show goes on. Kimbrel joked that after meeting with reporters on Friday night, he still had to go through his hour-long post-match practice.

Even after a night like this?!

“Oh yeah,” he said. “We have to prepare for tomorrow, we still have a game to win tomorrow. It’s not just around 400. It’s about getting some wins.”

Probably the kind of mindset required to join such an exclusive club, which may never welcome another member. The last man at 400 could have done it in a Phillies uniform.

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