Braves not panicking just yet over Kimbrel
Top closer candidate struggling in spring's early going
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Craig Kimbrel hasn't caused the Braves to push the panic button yet. But if the hard-throwing right-hander's struggles continue over the next week or two, the club will be forced to reassess exactly how they will handle the closer's role.
Kimbrel bounced back from a rough exhibition season debut with a scoreless inning against the Red Sox on Wednesday. But the 23-year-old right-hander struggled with his command again on Friday and paid the price as the Nationals tagged him for two runs and three hits in just one inning.
"If there is a trend like this later in the spring, then you start worrying about it," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "But not right now."
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This is obviously the kind of response expected from Gonzalez during the first week of March. But the Braves certainly didn't expect to see Kimbrel allow four runs and six hits in the 2 1/3 innings over three appearances.
Two of the three strikeouts tallied by Kimbrel during the exhibition season's first week were recorded Friday. In other words, he doesn't have the same form he displayed while notching 30 strikeouts in the last 15 2/3 innings (postseason included) he pitched in 2010.
"Some of these guys are going out there with only one pitch and still haven't been able to get the secondary pitch over," Gonzalez said.
Kimbrel has struggled with his curveball, and like many power pitchers, he seems to be having some trouble with his fastball during the early portion of Spring Training. But this didn't seem to be a problem last year, when he went through his first Grapefruit League season by allowing just three hits over nine scoreless innings.
With Kimbrel struggling early, the Braves can be encouraged that Jonny Venters, their other candidate for the closer's role, has allowed just one hit and worked three scoreless innings in the early portion of the exhibition season.
Chipper enjoys first pain-free day in a while
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Chipper Jones has spent the past week passing a progression of tests and steadily feeling better about his surgically repaired left knee. The veteran third baseman spent a few days serving as a designated hitter and then found no problems when it was determined it was time for him to play defense.
While playing third base again in Saturday's 6-4 win over the Mets, Jones gained a reward courtesy of the sensation he felt drilling a two-run fifth-inning homer off right-hander Dillon Gee.
"All bombs feel good," Jones said. "It's good for the confidence. I think I've got the roll to first and second down pat. So it was nice to actually elevate something."
Getting to execute his home run trot for the first time since Aug. 6 might have been special. But the day's most encouraging development came courtesy of the fact that for the first time since he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament on Aug. 10, the 38-year-old third baseman was able to spend a relatively pain-free day doing baseball activities.
"Today was the first day that I had no pain in my knee whatsoever, which I'm most excited about," Jones said. "I felt like today was the first day that the knee was as good as it was pre-injury. Now the key is to start stringing some days together where it feels like that. ... It was just a big cherry on top of a great day."
Jones' next test will come Sunday when he travels to Viera, Fla., to play third base against the Nationals. This will mark the first time he has played defense on back-to-back this year.
As he prepares to clear this next hurdle, Jones can only hope that he continues to feel as spry as he did Saturday.
"I felt like I had first-step explosion," Jones said. "I felt like I was running as hard and as fast as I could for a guy my age. I felt quick and I felt fast."
Sharp Lowe throws breaking ball with purpose
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Derek Lowe entered Saturday's start against the Mets thinking he might just throw a couple of breaking balls. This would enable him to continue to slowly strengthen his arm for the upcoming season and avoid duplicating the pitch patterns he's likely to show while seeing the Mets multiple times during the regular season.
"I know it's Spring Training, but you're still out there competing," said Lowe, who didn't allow a hit while tossing three scoreless innings against the Mets.
Lowe might not have pitched from the stretch had he not issued leadoff walks to begin the second and third innings. He negated the potential damage of both free passes by inducing inning-ending double plays.
"I didn't throw my curveball with the intention to just throw it for a strike," Lowe said. "I went after everyone as hard as I would in a game. Today was more of a game than my first game was."
While not throwing any breaking balls in Monday's exhibition season debut, Lowe tossed two scoreless innings against the Astros. As this month progresses, he will start utilizing his cutter and taking the final steps toward preparing for the regular season.
After a pain-free batting practice Saturday, Jason Heyward seemed confident that he would return to the lineup for Sunday's game against the Nationals in Viera, Fla. Heyward has missed the past three games with a sore left groin. ... Scott Proctor has told members of the Braves' coaching staff he's still trying to command his breaking ball. But the veteran right-hander still impressed while recording three strikeouts in a scoreless fourth inning Saturday.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.