Braves relief trio focused only on winning
Kimbrel, Venters, O'Flaherty know how they'll be measured
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty proved dominant through the season's first five months last year, they drew comparison to the Nasty Boys, the relief trio that helped the Reds win the 1990 World Series.
Now, as these relievers prepare to anchor the Braves bullpen for a second straight season, they do not necessarily care to be identified by a similar moniker. They are much more concerned about attempting to produce the kind of success that leads others to identify them with a fitting title.
"How about let us prove it again and then we can talk about it," O'Flaherty said. "One good season is not enough."
Kimbrel takes it one step further, recognizing the fact that he and Venters did not finish the season in impressive fashion.
"You don't get names like that for just being good part of the year, you get names like that for being good for the entire year, or your entire career," Kimbrel said.
While the conclusion to the 2011 season might have been frustrating, there is no doubt Kimbrel, Venters and O'Flaherty showed they have the potential to be one of those unique groups of relievers who are remembered long after they are done taking care of late-inning situations.
Like the Nasty Boys -- Randy Myers, Norm Charlton and Rob Dibble -- are still heralded by Reds fans, the Braves will never forget the incredible work John Smoltz, Mike Remlinger and Chris Hammond provided as the 2002 Atlanta bullpen posted an impressive 2.60 ERA.
"I think these guys are better," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said in reference to his team's current core relievers. "These guys have the ability to make you swing and miss. They know exactly what they want to do every time they walk out there. I'm glad they're on my team."
Given what they accomplished together last year, it was seemingly fitting that O'Flaherty, Venters and Kimbrel each made their 2012 Grapefruit League debuts during Tuesday's loss to the Nationals. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez even decided to utilize them in their normal order.
The only glaring differences were the innings in which they pitched and the results.
O'Flaherty allowed a two-out, two-run double to Chad Tracy before completing the third inning. On the way to becoming the first Major League pitcher to record a sub 1.00 ERA with at least 70 appearances, he had completed the 2011 season with 19 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings.
Less than 10 minutes later, Venters began the fourth inning by allowing Mark DeRosa to send a solo homer over the left-field wall. This was a somewhat odd experience for the left-handed sinkerballer, who had surrendered just three homers in the 171 innings he had combined to pitch the previous two seasons.
"The pitch DeRo hit, he hammered it," Venters said. "I wanted to throw all sinkers. I just got one over the plate and he hammered it. It wasn't what I wanted to do, but it was the first game."
This was the first game Kimbrel pitched since blowing a one-run ninth-inning lead in last year's must-win season finale against the Phillies. The reigning National League Rookie of the Year did not seemed bothered by this bit of trivial information as he pitched around a walk and recorded a strikeout in a scoreless fifth inning.
"There has been no reason to dwell on it," Kimbrel said.
As Kimbrel moved toward his record-setting 46 saves in 2011, he seemed to be in the midst of a magical season. The quiet reliever from Huntsville, Ala., had made 38 consecutive scoreless appearances and converted 25 consecutive save opportunities before Albert Pujols victimized him with a game-tying two-run single with two outs in the ninth inning of a Sept. 9 game in St. Louis.
This stood as the first of the three blown saves Kimbrel suffered in his last six opportunities of the year. At the same time, his top setup man was experiencing his own late-season struggles. Venters produced a 1.10 ERA in his first 70 appearances of the year, but a 5.65 ERA in the 15 appearances he made after Aug. 25.
"It is what it is," Venters said. "It happened. There's no denying that we both struggled down the stretch. Everybody is going to have a stretch during the season when they're going to struggle. For us, it just happened to be the same month, and it was at the end of the year, and the most important time of the year."
Fatigue seemed to be the primary influences as Venters led the Majors with 85 appearances last year and Kimbrel ranked second with 79. Both have said they toned down their offseason preparations and will be smarter about the extra work they complete during the season.
But Jones believes a more consistent offense could benefit the Braves, who also utilized O'Flaherty in 78 games. The team played 54 one-run games and 26 extra-inning games last year.
"I dare say that virtually all of those one-run games, we were using at least two of those guys," Jones said. "You saw the kind of effect it had on them late. So this year, we need to save them. There's a couple different ways to do it. You need to get your starters to go further in the games, and [you need to] score more runs."
A group of Braves fans have started to refer to this relief trio as The Untouchables. While they proved capable of living up to this billing most of last season, it would have been more fitting without the blemishes suffered in September.
Other than saying they do not like the O'Ventbrel tag that some chose to use last year, Kimbrel, Venters and O'Flaherty are certainly not concerned about monikers. They'll just continue to pitch and allow others to provide fitting descriptions.
"If we don't win games, then a name means nothing," Venters said. "If we help the team win and get to where we want to be, then maybe it will mean something."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.