Season crashes down on rookie closer

Jeff Passan

ATLANTA – Craig Kimbrel(notes) sat at his own wake Wednesday night. All around the 23-year-old, his Atlanta Braves teammates waxed on about how much he meant to them, what a good kid he was, how they didn't want his small failure to personify their momentous one. Kimbrel stared straight ahead, like he wasn't listening to any of it. Maybe he wasn't.

Either way, the Braves' season was done in what would've been the most staggering of collapses had the Boston Red Sox not spontaneously combusted 20 minutes later. Atlanta, owners of a 10½-game wild-card lead in late August, of an 8½-game advantage Sept. 5, ended Wednesday night without pole position on a playoff spot for the first time since June 20. It happened to be the one day they couldn't afford to be in such a place.

And so they sulked and moped and lamented, no one more so than Craig Kimbrel, whose blown save in the ninth inning eventuated in a 4-3 loss to Philadelphia and an October without postseason baseball for Atlanta. For three innings after Kimbrel's flameout, the Braves held strong. Come the 13th inning, a 120-foot squibber off Hunter Pence's(notes) bat dribbled in no-man's land and scored a run. Had the Braves done their duty, they would have faced the St. Louis Cardinals in a one-game playoff Thursday.

Instead, they will clean out their lockers and head home to remember what wasn't, to bemoan what should've been, to wonder why. Nobody did so more Wednesday than Kimbrel.

"Everybody in this clubhouse and everybody on this team showed up to play today and gave everything they could to win this game except myself," he said. "I didn't go out there and didn't pitch to my ability. Part of being a closer is being able to ball up your emotions and harness them, and I didn't do that today. I let the team down."

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In his first full season, Kimbrel has been the best closer in baseball, a flame-throwing automaton whose gaudy strikeout ratio and rookie-record 46 saves left hitters fearing him. At least until September. While Kimbrel's raw stuff remained powerful – his fastball dancing near triple digits, his slider with more wipeout power than Windex – his command of it waned. The easy culprit was Fredi Gonzalez, the Braves' first-year manager, whose usage patterns of Kimbrel prompted worry as early as May.

By the end of the month, Kimbrel had pitched in more than half of Atlanta's games. At the All-Star break, he had thrown in 47 of 91, including 11 stints on back-to-back days and two more times pitching three consecutive days. Fans worried. Media, too. Gonzalez shrugged it off, even as the most respected man in his clubhouse said he was concerned with the overuse of Kimbrel and his two setup men, Jonny Venters(notes) and Eric O'Flaherty(notes).

"Yeah, I worried," Chipper Jones(notes) said. "But when you get in a tight game, you worry about today today and deal with tomorrow tomorrow. Unfortunately, they were a part of today a lot and tomorrow a lot and the next day a lot."

While other modern closers have matched Kimbrel's workload, none have been rookies, let alone one shoehorned into a playoff race. After going 38 consecutive appearances without giving up a run – and with striking out 67 in 37 2/3 innings – Kimbrel blew a save Sept. 9. Then came another Sept. 19, and Wednesday night's. Venters' struggles in September left Gonzalez at least considering the Braves' stretch gag – 9-18 over the final month – and the relievers' efficacy might be of his own doing.

"Maybe they are [tired], maybe they're not," Gonzalez said. "Again, for me, those are excuses. If we hold their appearances back down, maybe we're a .500 club. Maybe we're not in this situation."

Actually, in all likelihood the Braves would have clinched a postseason spot and all of this would've been moot. Jones losing a ground ball "in the lights" and Omar Infante(notes) following with a walkoff home run. Derek Lowe(notes) tanking so badly Tuesday that he walked off the mound to hand the ball to Gonzalez during the pitching change. And Kimbrel losing all semblance of control, issuing a hit and three walks, and giving up the game-tying sacrifice fly before Gonzalez gave him a mercy hook.

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He couldn't forget it, not yet, because he knew what this season was supposed to be. A few weeks ago, Jones said, he started making arrangements for playoff tickets for family and friends. The Braves were going. It was that simple.

"There's not a guy in here that didn't expect us to be in it, and that's why it hurts the most," said reliever Scott Linebrink(notes), who allowed Pence's game-winning hit. "Every one of us thought we'd be there. I came to the field today just knowing in my gut we were going to win."

Except they didn't. They frittered away a 3-1 lead and blew opportunities in extras to score runs and labored to string together any offense against the nine pitchers Philadelphia used and saw their season end on a double play.

And they milled about the locker room shell-shocked at what had just happened, not a single TV tuned to the Boston-Baltimore game or the Tampa Bay-New York game like all the other ones around clubhouses, blisslessly unaware of what was happening everywhere else. The Braves moved in slow motion. This felt too wrong to be real.

All except Kimbrel. He owned his failure, owned it hard and fast, owned it like so many don't or can't. The wake went on around him.

"We wouldn't be here without him," said Tim Hudson(notes), the Braves' starter Wednesday. "That's the thing. He's been a stud all year. One of the best closers in the game this year. Probably Rookie of the Year."

Kimbrel scratched his arm.

"He's unbelievable," Hudson said. "Great teammate. Great kid. Works hard. He just had one night where it didn't fall in place for him."

Kimbrel tugged his hat, still on his head.

"Just happened to be the last game of the season," Hudson said. "But we wouldn't be here without him. He closed so many games for us, nailed down so many wins, a lesser closer wouldn't have been able to hold 'em down."

Kimbrel tilted his head toward Hudson. They were maybe 10 feet apart, only three lockers separating them, and Hudson had raised his voice a little, just to make sure the kid heard every word. Turns out he was listening. And he needed to hear it, because the whole idea that failure makes you better and makes success sweeter is saccharine bordering on inconceivable for those still trying to come to terms with their mistakes.

"It's tough to be so close and to have the feeling of it falling out of your hand," Kimbrel said. "That's the feeling I have right now."

He started replaying things – how they started moving a little faster, first his head, then his brain, all the pressure, Game 162. It became too much, and Craig Kimbrel forgot everything he taught himself at the one time he couldn't.

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On life went around him, people saying their piece and paying homage and reminding that Kimbrel has a long and fruitful career ahead, arm and Fredi willing. Before Hudson left, he looked Kimbrel square in the eye and said: "We wouldn't (expletive) be here without you." He meant it. He was right.

This was Craig Kimbrel's year – until it wasn't. And no words could change that.

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