Kimbrel, Venters forming fearsome 1-2 punch
Lefty setup man, righty closer have bond on and off the field
Even as they have established themselves as one of the game's best relief duos, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel have not been able to escape the fact that Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez still views them as wide-eyed kids who remind him of his young sons.
"They're kids," Perez said. "I have to tell them where to go and what to do. I love them. They're incredible kids."
Two years removed from being introduced while pitching for Triple-A Gwinnett, Venters and Kimbrel have spent the past three months serving as the most impressive setup-closer combo the Braves have possessed since Mike Remlinger was serving as John Smoltz's setup man in 2002.
While anchoring that record-setting Atlanta bullpen, Remlinger was 36 years old and Smoltz was a 35-year-old hurler who had already amassed 392 career appearances and garnered a National League Cy Young Award.
When the 26-year-old Venters and 23-year-old Kimbrel entered this season as the anchors of the Braves' bullpen, they desired to be even better than they were last year -- when they introduced their gifted arms to the Major League scene in impressive fashion.
"Those guys are very polished, especially considering their age and [that there is] not a whole lot of experience between them," Braves reliever Scott Linebrink said. "I know Jonny appreciates where he's come from, and the fact he's had to battle through an arm injury. Craig, too. Both of them seem to have their heads on straight.
"They're both hard workers. It's not like they're just two young kids riding on their talent. Both have a tremendous amount of talent. But they're also willing to put in the time and effort to maximize the talent they have."
This glowing compliment comes from a 34-year-old veteran who has been part of bullpens anchored by Robb Nen, Billy Wagner and Trevor Hoffman, all of whom rank among the best closers of all time.
Through his first 62 Major League appearances, nobody can predict whether Kimbrel's star will shine as long as Hoffman's or fade as quickly as John Rocker's. Nor does anybody know whether Venters will continue to impress enough to be considered the game's best reliever -- a description he garnered during most of the season's first half.
"There's no substitute for stuff, and those guys have it," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said.
With Kimbrel blowing guys away with his powerful fastball and Venters frustrating opponents with a power sinker, they seemingly had the stuff to participate in their first All-Star Game together this year.
While it's still a possibility this could prove true when All-Star rosters are announced Sunday, the hopes of it happening were damaged this week when Venters allowed double the amount of runs he had surrendered in his first 43 appearances of the season.
Venters surrendered four runs with two outs in the eighth inning of last Sunday's loss to the Padres, and then allowed just the second homer of his career (134 innings) in the eighth inning of Wednesday's win over the Mariners. This four-day stretch nearly tripled his ERA from 0.56 to 1.59, which led Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez to say he will likely rest his valuable left-hander during a portion of this weekend's series against the Orioles.
"Jonny does not like to have days off, but we've got to be smart about this," Gonzalez said.
In the process of making a Major League-high 125 appearances and ranking second with 134 innings dating back to the beginning of last year, Venters has posted a 1.81 ERA while seemingly compiling the credentials to realize his hope of experiencing this year's All-Star Game with Kimbrel.
Kimbrel has notched 23 saves -- three shy of Jonathan Papelbon's rookie record for the most before the All-Star break -- and leads all relievers with 65 strikeouts. The 15.32 strikeouts per nine innings he has registered dating back to last year also ranks as the best mark among Major League relievers.
In other words, the Braves no longer have any reason to worry about having a rookie closer and second-year setup man.
"I didn't worry about Jonny," Jones said. "I was a little worried about Kimbrel at first, because the three hardest outs to get are in the ninth inning, and you wondered how he would respond. It's a nice luxury to have when you can get swings and misses at the end of the game."
When Kimbrel blew a couple save opportunities in May, some fans wondered if Venters should serve as the closer. While certainly ready for the opportunity, Venters never showed a sense of jealousy or selfishness that would be detrimental to the team or his friendship with Kimbrel.
"I support him the way I'm pretty sure he would support me if I was the closer," Venters said. "It's not something I really even think about. We just both love to pitch."
While Venters became an overnight sensation once he arrived last year, his journey to the Majors was long and painful. After being selected by the Braves in the 30th round of the 2003 First-Year Player Draft, he underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery and then dealt with some left elbow ailments. He made 29 combined appearances from 2006-08.
Kimbrel's journey proved to be much different, as he rocketed toward Atlanta after the Braves took him in the third round of the 2008 Draft. One year later, he earned a late-season promotion to Gwinnett and developed his friendship with Venters.
Now the two are essentially inseparable. Venters spent most of his free time during Spring Training teaching Kimbrel how to fish. In the months that have followed, he has been shown appreciation in the form of trash talk.
"We just like to talk [junk] to each other," Kimbrel said. "He's definitely a better fisher than I am. But I'm not going to tell him that. We have a lot of fun with it."
When eating on the road or visiting a landmark -- this week's choice was Seattle's Space Needle -- Venters and Kimbrel can often be found together. And of course when it comes time for them to prepare for their late-inning roles, they can often be found interacting and filling the bullpen with their youthful energy.
"They're so comfortable," Perez said. "They believe in themselves so much. They're great kids to have in the bullpen."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.