Kimbrel's impressive year has sour ending
Rookie closer gives up tying run as Braves lose finale
ATLANTA -- It was a blown save that Braves closer Craig Kimbrel likely won't forget anytime soon.
The rookie entered the ninth inning Wednesday night at Turner Field with the Braves clinging to a 3-2 lead over the Phillies. A successful save would have sent the Braves to a one-game tiebreaker against the Cardinals in St. Louis, with the winner claiming the National League's Wild Card berth.
The Phillies had other ideas.
Placido Polanco led things off with a single before Ben Francisco and Jimmy Rollins followed with one out walks. Chase Utley brought home the game-tying run on a sacrifice fly before the Phils eventually went ahead four frames later, sending the Braves packing with a 4-3 victory in 13 innings.
"I let my emotions get the best of me today," Kimbrel said. "Being in the ninth inning, being excited, when you let that get to you you're not the same pitcher. And I let that get to me today."
It was a disappointing ending to a record-breaking season for the 23-year-old. Kimbrel earned his first All-Star selection in July and established a new rookie saves record a month later with his 41st of the season on Aug. 31, surpassing the mark set by Rangers closer Neftali Feliz in 2010.
"He's had a Rookie of the Year-caliber year," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "We couldn't have been here without him. He's a good kid. Just like how we felt for a guy like Brooks Conrad last year, you feel for him. But he's going to be a better closer down the road because of something like this."
If Wednesday's outcome does indeed make Kimbrel a better closer, the opposition is certainly in trouble when the ninth inning arrives. The right-hander proved to be one of the most dominant closers in 2011, as he led all Major League relievers with 126 strikeouts and finished second with 46 saves.
"This is going to make me work a lot harder this offseason," Kimbrel said in front of his locker following the game.
Things truly began to unravel for Kimbrel and the Braves on Sept. 9 at Busch Stadium. Kimbrel entered the ninth with a 3-1 advantage, but the Cardinals rallied on a two out, two-run single by Albert Pujols before going on to win it in the following inning.
Ten days later, Kimbrel gave up a walk-off two-run shot to former Brave Omar Infante, as the Marlins rallied to a 6-5 win at Sun Life Stadium.
"I just didn't put it together," said Kimbrel, who finished with eight blown saves. "September is the hardest month of the year. I just didn't figure it out. I let my team down."
Kimbrel's teammates disagreed.
"I can't say enough about what he's done," catcher Brian McCann said. "The whole reason we're playing out here, he's one of the biggest reasons, to be a rookie and do what he did."
Starter Tim Hudson echoed those sentiments, referencing Kimbrel and setup man Jonny Venters as two of the biggest reasons why the Braves were in the playoff hunt.
"We leaned on them hard all year," he said. "You can't blame those guys. Every time we called on them they came with their best stuff. They came with whatever they had left in the tank."
Added manager Fredi Gonzalez: "If we hold their appearances back down, maybe we're a .500 club. Maybe we're not in this situation."
Jones said following Wednesday's defeat that he contemplated going out to the mound to calm the closer down before the inning began.
"That was probably my fault. ... I thought to myself, 'You know what, he's good enough. He'll fall in check and he'll have it under control,'" Jones said. "Unfortunately, I wish I had a do-over."
McCann thought Kimbrel looked like "normal Craig," and didn't find his approach to be any different than usual.
"A couple calls here and there, he made some really good pitches that could have gone either way and they were balls," he said. "They were close. I thought he pitched good. He had a great year."
It's a year Kimbrel shouldn't forget regardless of how it ended. Big things are expected from here on out for Atlanta's closer.
"Just keep my head up. It was a long season," Kimbrel said. "All I can do now is look at what I did today, fix it, come back next year and help this team win a lot more games."
Chris Cox is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.