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Kimbrel and Walden are newest rookie closers

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports
Kimbrel and Walden are newest rookie closers

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Rookie closer Craig Kimbrel has accepted congratulations from veteran catcher Brian McCann several times …

Craig Kimbrel(notes) is 23, 5-foot-11 and bright-eyed, all freckles, Huntsville, Alabama, and fastball.

Jordan Walden(notes) is 23, 6-foot-5 and darkly whiskered, all intimidation, Mansfield, Texas, and fastball.

They stand featured in bullpens in Atlanta and Anaheim, anchoring ninth innings as rookies, and furthering a recent baseball trend in closers of big arms and precocious spirits over life experience.

From the back end of a decade that saw Huston Street(notes), Andrew Bailey(notes) and Neftali Feliz(notes) earn Rookie of the Year awards (rookie Jonathan Papelbon(notes) was runner-up in 2006), Kimbrel and Walden had fewer than 40 big league innings between them, reported to spring training amid talk of shared or lesser roles, took the ninth inning anyway, and haven’t yet allowed an earned run.

On opening day in Washington, the Braves’ Kimbrel protected a 2-0 ninth-inning lead, struck out Mike Morse and Rick Ankiel(notes) for the final two outs, and has three more saves since. He is fifth in saves in the National League, and first among closers with a 0.67 WHIP.

Walden watched as the Angels blew three saves in the first four games. He took the ball for the ninth inning of the fifth game and struck out Tampa Bay’s Felipe Lopez(notes) for the save that would begin to settle Mike Scioscia’s bullpen. His three saves are sixth in the American League, which is batting .107 against him.

Together, they took the experience of setting up in 2010 – Kimbrel for the retiring Billy Wagner(notes), Walden for Fernando Rodney(notes) and whatever was left of the Angels’ bullpen by September – to forge for themselves early claims to one of baseball’s glamour jobs.

“It still hasn’t sunk in that I’m the closer,” said Walden, who a week into the season was still scrambling for his entrance music, settling eventually for “Smoke on the Water.”

He was a 12th-round pick – 372nd overall – in 2006, a draft that gave us pitchers Luke Hochevar(notes), Brandon Morrow(notes), Clayton Kershaw(notes), Tim Lincecum(notes), Max Scherzer(notes), Jeremy Jeffress(notes), Kyle Drabek(notes), Ian Kennedy(notes), Daniel Bard(notes), Joba Chamberlain(notes) and Chris Perez(notes) in the first round alone.

A shortstop at Mansfield High School outside Dallas, Walden grew four inches between his freshman and sophomore seasons.

Like that, he said, “I was too tall to be a shortstop anymore.”

His father suggested he pitch. His first fastball was 88 mph. Two weeks later, he touched 90. By the end of his sophomore year, he was throwing 94. A groin injury near the end of his senior year sapped his velocity, so the Angels took him as a long-shot draft-and-follow and advised him to spend a season at Grayson Community College, whose alumni include John Lackey(notes). His fastball returned, and by last summer – pitching for the Double-A Arkansas Travelers, and as a reliever for the first time – he touched 102 mph.

Walden has a lethal slider, too, one he’s working to command better. But this is about velo.

“If I could get 103,” he said, “that would be cool.”

Through 98 big league hitters, Walden has 33 strikeouts. There’s nothing quite like a swing-and-miss guy in the ninth, which has fueled the trend of youngsters from Papelbon to Bailey to Feliz, and then to Kimbrel. In his first 27 appearances, through 121 batters faced (including four appearances in the National League division series), he has struck out nearly half of them.

Kimbrel was a 33rd-round draft pick by the Braves in 2007, returned to Wallace State Community College (Hanceville, Ala.) for his sophomore year, and was a third rounder the following June. After only 71 appearances and barely two summers, he’d reached Triple-A.

Last May 7, 21 days before his 22nd birthday, he debuted for the Braves in Philadelphia. In a scoreless inning, pitching with a mid- to upper-90s fastball, he struck out Raul Ibanez(notes) and Carlos Ruiz(notes). The Phillies’ pitcher that night, Jamie Moyer(notes), was 47 years old. Moyer’s major league debut was in 1986, two years before Kimbrel was born.

That game, in front of all those people, with Moyer pitching a two-hit shutout, was the first and only time Kimbrel looked into the stands and actually saw people, saw their faces, and felt his nerves vibrate.

Not a year later, he takes the ball and finishes his games, feathering a spike curveball – sometimes it acts like a slider, other times it backs up, depending on its mood – with his ferocious fastball.

“No matter what the inning, what I think about is getting the outs I’m asked to get,” he said. “It is big, but in my head I’m trying not to make it any bigger.”

The job doesn’t come much bigger, the stakes don’t come much larger, the fastballs don’t come much hotter. And the faces don’t come much fresher.

“It’s crazy,” Walden said. “I still think, ‘When am I going to wake up?’ ”

Going on three weeks into the season, here’s the rest of the rookie watch list:

Brandon Belt(notes), San Francisco Giants: In 16 games, he’s batting .196, .158 against right-handed pitching. His team-leading eight walks probably won’t keep him from being optioned to Triple-A Fresno when Cody Ross(notes) comes off the disabled list.

Freddie Freeman(notes), Braves: A nine-game hitting streak, during which he batted .333, ended Monday night in Los Angeles. He has great hands and awareness at first base.

Mark Trumbo(notes), Angels: Kendrys Morales’(notes) understudy, Trumbo has raked lefties (.368 batting average).

Danny Espinosa(notes), Washington Nationals: The Nats’ second baseman leads all rookies with 14 RBIs, batting .364 with runners in scoring position.

Darwin Barney(notes), Chicago Cubs: Hitting in the two-hole since Starlin Castro(notes) went to leadoff, Barney leads eligible rookies in batting (.311) and is second in on-base percentage (.360).

Hank Conger(notes), Angels: Starting to take playing time from Jeff Mathis(notes), the switch-hitting Conger is providing the Angels an offensive presence at catcher.

J.P. Arencibia(notes), Toronto Blue Jays: Getting the majority of starts at catcher, Arencibia has six extra-base hits in 42 at-bats.

Kyle Drabek, Blue Jays: The only thing wrong with Drabek is his run support. He’s 1-0 and with any help could be 3-0. His 1.93 ERA is best among rookies.

Michael Pineda(notes), Seattle Mariners: Big body, big fastball, big slider, deceptive changeup, Pineda – along with Felix Hernandez(notes) – looks like the future of the Mariners.

Zach Britton(notes), Baltimore Orioles: The lefty dominated Tampa Bay and Texas before hitting some bats in Cleveland. He’s holding righties to a .188 batting average.

Jeremy Hellickson(notes), Tampa Bay Rays: His command isn’t what it was late last season, but Hellickson has the stuff and composure to win a lot.

Aroldis Chapman(notes), Cincinnati Reds: After some velocity and command concerns a week ago, Chapman popped the radar gun Monday night in Cincy. All’s well for now.

Aaron Crow(notes), Kansas City Royals: Over seven outings in set-up, Crow hasn’t allowed a run in 10 1/3 innings.