BOSTON -- David Ross was behind the plate for 14 of the games Eric Gagne pitched during his record-breaking 2003 season. The current Braves backup catcher also counts Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner among the elite closers he has caught.
In the midst of his second full season as a Major League closer, Craig Kimbrel certainly has not earned the right to be placed in the same elite category as these aforementioned pitchers. But Ross does not believe it is unfair to make some comparisons.
"He's the fastest ever to 200 strikeouts in terms of innings in the history of the game, so it's not unfair to compare him to anybody," Ross said. "Do I think he has reached that status yet? No. He's getting by with his stuff now. It's like with many other young players. Bryce Harper is doing what he's doing strictly on talent. When he learns the league and learns how to play at this level, it's going to be a joke. It's the same thing with Craig."
Showing no ill effects from the save opportunity he blew in a must-win situation during last year's regular season finale, Kimbrel has posted a 1.33 ERA and limited opponents to a .214 on-base percentage while securing a National League-best 21 saves. The 24-year-old right-hander has been simply dominant since suffering his only blown save of the season and allowing a run in each of the three appearances he made from April 29-May 4.
Kimbrel has allowed three hits, issued two walks and struck out 25 of the 54 batters he has faced while not allowing a run in his past 16 appearances. The fact that he has issued just two walks during this 16-inning stretch is impressive. But the dominance of this stretch is better understood when it is pointed out both walks were issued in the same game.
"If he has his stuff, it's just lights out," Ross said. "If he has his stuff and is throwing strikes, you're not going to hit him."
Kimbrel learned of his first All-Star selection a couple hours after the Braves had played their final game before the All-Star break last year. This year, he will likely be one of the first relievers placed on the NL roster.
While in Minors, Jurrjens improved arm action
BOSTON -- When the Braves sent Jair Jurrjens to Triple-A Gwinnett two months ago, they wanted him to build strength to improve the velocity of his fastball. In addition, they asked him to focus on producing a wider gap between the velocity of his fastball and changeup.
While limiting the Red Sox to three hits and one run in 7 2/3 innings on Friday night, the former All-Star provided indication that he made some necessary strides while in the Minors. Jurrjens' four-seam fastball came in between 90-91 mph during the first three innings. When his velocity dipped to 88-89 mph during the later innings, he kept hitters off balance by mixing in a heavy dose of changeups and some sliders.
Jurrjens completed a seven-pitch seventh inning by using three consecutive changeups to strike out Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
"That means he was making some pretty good arm action with it," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "That's one of the things that we wanted him to work on. The first couple innings, with his arm action, you couldn't tell if it was a fastball or a changeup when it came out of his hand. That's the main thing."
According to BrooksBaseball.net, there was a difference of 6.2 mph between the average velocity of Jurrjens' four-seam fastball and changeup on Friday night. While the Braves would like a wider gap, Gonzalez said it is more important for the rejuvenated hurler to focus on his generating deceptive arm action.
Jason Heyward batted .389 with a .421 on-base percentage and .778 slugging percentage in his previous 15 games entering Saturday. Arizona's Aaron Hill (1.277) Toronto's Jose Bautista (1.267) and Cincinnati's Joey Votto were the only Major Leaguers with a better OPS than Heyward (1.199) during this stretch.
Shortstop Andrelton Simmons' greatest value comes courtesy of his tremendous his defensive skills, and the rookie is also excelling at the plate. He entered Saturday's game batting .323 with seven multihit performances in the first 16 games of his career.
The Braves will keep their rotation in place coming out of the scheduled off-day on Monday. The scheduled starting pitchers for the upcoming series against the D-backs will be Tim Hudson (Tuesday) Tommy Hanson (Wednesday) and Jair Jurrjens (Thursday).
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.