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Stretching the Field: Braves have premier closer in Kimbrel

He needs more than a decade to reach Mariano Rivera standards, but can dial it up Lee Smith style at any time.

With a cannon for a right arm, Craig Kimbrel is the consummate closer in the major leagues and the gem to the Atlanta Braves' bullpen. If the Braves are able to get to their closer, opposing lineups might as well just cash in instead of pushing all of the chips to the center of the table.

Kimbrel's own playing table has a width of 17 inches, which is the length of home plate. He can hit all corners of the dish and doesn't give hitters much time to determine what type of pitch is coming because he nears 100 mph consistently with the fastball. The start of Kimbrel's delivery may throw batters off, too, as he dangles his golden right arm before getting the signs.

It's pretty much lights out after that.

The New York Yankees may have been thrown off by Kimbrel's approach in Tuesday's 4-3 win by the Braves because they struck out twice in three at-bats during the bottom of the ninth inning. Kimbrel closed out the win and contributed to stopping the Yankees' season-high 10-game winning streak with a simple mix of curve balls and heaters. Future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter struck out swinging on a fastball up and in to lead things off, while Curtis Granderson was fed a few breakers before whiffing on a fastball.

Alex Rodriguez was the Yankees' last hope and he saved face by popping out to end the game.

Kimbrel's curve is comparable to some other pitchers' fastball, as it can reach the mid to high 80s. It's one thing for Kimbrel to throw near 100 mph and it's another when he can take about 15-to-20 mph off the next offering. That's what makes him so scary and successful because all the hitter can do is just guess what's coming next.

"Kimbrel's good. He's been terrific. We all know he's got a plus-plus fastball, but it seems he's gotten to where he's pitched," said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. "He throws breaking balls over for strikes on the first pitch, so guys can't go out there hunting first pitch, they can't ambush him. They've got to respect both his pitches. It's been nice to go to him the last year- and-a-half and he's been terrific."

Kimbrel draws comparisons to former Braves closer Billy Wagner, a flame-thrower who stymied batters with both a blazing fastball and an elusive slider. Wagner's limited tool box still has him fifth all-time with 422 career saves. Imagine what great lengths Kimbrel could reach if he added a slider or even a changeup to his repertoire.

Last year's N.L. Rookie of the Year, Kimbrel hasn't allowed any home runs this season and the last time he surrendered an earned run was May 4 -- two days after blowing his first and only save of the season. He has converted 12 straight save chances since blowing an aforementioned lead versus Philadelphia in a 15-13 setback at Turner Field, while opposing batters are hitting .075 against him (4-for-53) since that time.

Kimbrel, who leads the National League with 20 saves through 26 innings pitched, has fanned 25 batters in 16 games since that lone blown save. He recorded 46 saves a year ago and owns 67 in 126 career games. By the way, Rivera has the most saves in history with 608 and would have more had he not suffered a serious knee injury shagging fly balls in early May.

Not to take anything away from Braves relievers Chad Durbin, Eric O'Flaherty, Cristhian Martinez, Jonny Venters or Kris Medlen, Atlanta's bullpen would be average at best without Kimbrel, who has 13 saves on the road and seven at home. Durbin, Venters and O'Flaherty combined for three shutout innings on Tuesday.

"I thought our bullpen today bent a little bit but didn't break, and it's showing some signs of being the bullpen of last year," Gonzalez said. "It's tough to hold a one-run lead in this ballpark [Yankee Stadium] against that lineup, and we did it."

The Braves still have three more games in Boston to play before returning to Turner Field for a 10-game homestand. With the game on the line in the ninth inning, there's no doubt the right arm of Kimbrel will be ready. He just needs to hear his number called about 600 more times over the next 15 years or so to go down as one of the best closers in baseball history.

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