Kimbrel continues dominance in sophomore season
Let's go deep inside the mind of Craig Kimbrel, the most intimidating closer in the Major Leagues not named Aroldis Chapman.
We're in the top of the ninth inning at Turner Field in Atlanta, where Kimbrel closes games for the Braves, and the low roar slowly moves from medium to loud to delirious as the anticipation builds in the crowd with the home team just three outs from victory.
The bullpen door opens in right field. The video screen that sits high and deep beyond the wall in center begins flashing highlights of Kimbrel's career. With the noise getting louder, those who run the public address system blast "Welcome to the Jungle" through the speakers.
Then Kimbrel begins his steady trot to the pitcher's mound with the noise getting even louder.
What is Kimbrel thinking?
Strategy? The coolness of the situation?
Kimbrel laughed, saying, "No, I'm thinking, 'Don't fall down on the way to the pitcher's mound. Please, don't fall down, because I know everybody in the whole ballpark is looking at me.'"
He hasn't tripped over his cleats yet -- you know, on the way to the disabled list or something -- to the chagrin of hitters. As a result, Kimbrel's numbers are ridiculous this season.
He has 70 strikeouts in 41 innings pitched, and he has walked just 11. Not only that, his ERA is 1.32, and his 30 saves are only one behind the trio of Fernando Rodney, Jim Johnson and Joel Hanrahan that leads the Major Leagues.
This was typical Kimbrel: In the bottom of the ninth inning of the Braves' 6-1 victory on Thursday night at Turner Field against the Miami Marlins, Kimbrel struck out the side.
But Kimbrel's intimidation factor goes beyond numbers.
It's the look. Before each pitch, Kimbrel leans forward so low on the mound while glaring at the catcher for signs that you think his belly is going to touch the ground. If you're a hitter, it's a distraction, and it's enough to mess you up, along with thoughts about ...
The pitches. Which pitch? Will Kimbrel deliver his blur of a fastball that flirts with the speed of light? Or will he counter with his peerless breaking ball that features a crazy dip along the way to home plate, and is about 10-15 mph slower than his fastball?
It's a pitch combination that often makes hitters look silly when they're anticipating one and getting the other.
That's intimidating, all right. Not that Kimbrel notices.
"I don't. I just try to pitch my game and stay consistent," said Kimbrel, 24, who has done exactly that during his second Major League season, with his terrorizing of hitters as a byproduct. "I'm looking at it as, 'I'm just trying to go out there each time and do my job.' As long as I can keep that mentality, hopefully I can keep pitching good."
Still, Kimbrel ranks with Chapman as the ultimate bogeymen for hitters late during games.
It begins and ends with their fastballs.
Chapman is also 24, and his arm can manufacture pitches that hit triple digits. The same goes for Kimbrel. And just like Kimbrel, Chapman's numbers are sensational, especially when it comes to strikeouts: 96 in 51 2/3 innings as a closer for the Cincinnati Reds, along with 14 walks, 23 saves and a 1.39 ERA.
While Chapman towers over hitters at 6-foot-4, Kimbrel's leaning on the mound makes him appear smaller at 5-foot-11.
Plus, Chapman hits 100 mph most times that he throws, but Kimbrel prefers to use his dynamic duo of pitches, which causes even more knees to wobble among hitters.
"It's always to your advantage if you go out there and you're already in their heads in that sense," Kimbrel said. "But I don't know. I really don't think about it like that. Not at all. I just go out there, try to get the first guy out and go from there."
We're back to the absolutely wired crowd at Turner Field, the flashing video board that screams "Kimbrel" after he leaves the bullpen, and the jumping music.
Then, more often than not, there is the swiftest of strikeouts or some other meek out involving the first batter that Kimbrel faces, and then everything becomes wilder around him.
Does he get more pumped as the moment progresses?
"No, I really don't, but a lot of my teammates have told me that they feel that way," Kimbrel said. "The way I feel? The music and the fans, they definitely make it easier on me to get amped up, and to get my adrenaline going and to get focused on the game.
"Like I said, I try to get the first guy out, because to me, the first batter of any inning is the most important. If the leadoff man gets on in a one-run ballgame, well, he'll probably end up on second. They'll bunt him over, or there will be a base hit to advance him.
"But outside of the first batter, I'm not looking to do anything special. I just try to go out there and not give the game up."
Those were Kimbrel's horrors of last September, for instance. After the Braves entered that month with an 8 1/2-game lead for the National League's Wild Card berth, they suffered an epic collapse, and it featured Kimbrel blowing three save chances down the stretch.
Prior to that, Kimbrel pitched like the guy who deserved -- and got -- every first-place vote for the NL Rookie of the Year Award. His 46 saves were an all-time record for a rookie. His 127 strikeouts were more than any reliever in baseball. He made the All-Star Game, and during one stretch, he threw nearly 38 consecutive shutout innings.
Now, Kimbrel is better.
"My goal is to not to be a pitcher who just goes out there and throws hard, but to get better each time I go out there," said Kimbrel, delivering his scariest message of all to hitters.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.