CHICAGO -- As Neftali Feliz was cruising through a record-setting rookie season last year, Braves fans did not like the fact that he was one of the top prospects their club had used to acquire Mark Teixeira from the Rangers just before the 2007 Trade Deadline.

But over the course of this season, many of these same fans have come to realize Craig Kimbrel is quite capable of providing the Braves the same kind of late-inning dominance that Feliz has offered the Rangers over the past two seasons.

With the scoreless ninth inning produced in Tuesday's 5-4 win over the Cubs at Wrigley Field, Kimbrel recorded his 40th save, matching the Major League rookie record Feliz set last year.

"I'm not thinking about any records or anything like that," Kimbrel said. "I'm just thinking about the last three outs of the game and helping my team win."

EARLY SAVERS
Most saves by Major League rookies, since 1969:
PLAYER YEAR SAVES
1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves 2011 40
1. Neftali Feliz, Rangers 2010 40
3. Kazuhiro Sasaki, Mariners 2000 37
4. Todd Worrell, Cardinals 1986 36
5. Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox 2006 35

Kimbrel retired the first two batters he faced in Tuesday's ninth inning and then allowed Aramis Ramirez to cap a five-hit night with a bloop single that Jason Heyward fumbled in shallow right field. With Ramirez on second base, the Braves' 23-year-old closer used three consecutive curveballs to record a game-ending strikeout of Tyler Colvin.

"He's not just a fastball guy anymore," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He threw three breaking balls to the last guy. He's learning. He's getting better. He's been terrific really."

Kimbrel has successfully converted each of his past 22 save opportunities and held opponents scoreless over his past 31 2/3 innings, dating back to June 14. The hard-throwing right-hander has limited opponents to a .114 batting average over his past 32 appearances.

Blessed with a fastball that can occasionally force a radar gun to use three digits and a knee-buckling curve, Kimbrel has quickly become one of the game's most intimidating relievers. His 103 strikeouts are 19 more than any other Major League reliever has registered this season.

"He's absolutely fearless," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "I think he realized really early in the season, 'I throw the ball 100 miles per hour,' and 99 percent of the people in the big leagues, you can tell them 99 [mph] is coming and they ain't going to hit it. He's got a devastating breaking ball to boot, and he commands both."

Kimbrel is averaging 14.56 strikeouts per nine innings this season. Among pitchers that have logged at least 50 innings, only five -- Carlos Marmol (15.99), Eric Gagne (14.98), Billy Wagner (14.95), Brad Lidge (14.93) and Armando Benitez (14.77)-- in the history of the game have finished a season with a strikeout per nine average of at least 14.56.

After Kimbrel impressed last September and during the National League Division Series against the Giants, the Braves entered this offseason confident he was ready to serve as their closer. He experienced some expected growing pains, blowing five of his first 23 opportunities.

But dating back to the middle of June, Kimbrel has essentially proven automatic in the closer's role.

"He's held his composure and he's pitched," Gonzalez said. "Some of those guys in the back end of the bullpen are throwers. He's a pitcher. He pitches, which is a nice combination to have along with a 98-mph fastball."