Kimbrel becomes perhaps final member of exclusive club on storybook night

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ATLANTA -- Rob Thomson was still choked up a half hour after Craig Kimbrel induced a ground ball to third base that made the first-year Phillies reliever the eighth member of the 400-save club Saturday night. 

It was a storybook scenario.

This was the same city where Kimbrel's potential Hall of Fame career began 14 seasons ago. He came up with the Braves and spent his first five years in Atlanta, posting several of the most dominant seasons in MLB history for a closer.

Kimbrel led the National League in saves every year from 2011 through 2014 and left the Braves with a 1.43 ERA.

More than a decade later, he was back on a mound in Atlanta, looking to do what he'd done 399 times prior in the regular season.

This number, 400, was never truly a goal for him. It's one of those things that happens as you do your job week-in, week-out, year after year.

"I wouldn't say it was a target," he said. "It was just one year at a time, one save at a time, because we don't know what tomorrow brings. I'm happy to have done this 400 times. 

"I knew that if I was closing games, I was hoping to get 35 to 40 a year. That's about it. How the number climbs or how many I get every year or seeing that happen, doing the numbers, no, not at all."

The first nine seasons of Kimbrel's career were ludicrous. He saved 333 games with a 1.91 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 336 more strikeouts than innings pitched. 

But these last five years haven't been as rosy. Kimbrel struggled in 2019 and 2020 with the Cubs. He was dominant the first half of 2021 but wasn't able to perform the way he wanted after a midseason, crosstown trade to the White Sox, where he set up for Liam Hendriks.

The White Sox traded Kimbrel to the Dodgers for outfielder A.J. Pollock just before the 2022 season began and his L.A. experience was up-and-down. He saved 22 games and his ERA was better than the league average but he lost his closer's job by the end of the year.

The Phillies signed him on January 4 but it was unclear what role he'd fill. Would he close? Would he be part of a committee? Would he set up? The Phils had four viable closer candidates in Kimbrel, Jose Alvarado, Seranthony Dominguez and Gregory Soto. The role Kimbrel has found himself in for the last six weeks or so was far from guaranteed. He's become the de facto closer unless the opposition has several lefties due up in the ninth.

"I just showed up to be ready," he said. "I know last year in L.A., I did a lot of things wrong but I did some things right, too. I had a lot of bad outings but it's just controlling those bad outings and not letting them become bad habits. I feel like, for the most part, I've been able to do a pretty good job of that so far this year. If I've had a bad outing, I've been able to come back ready to attack and not try to nibble. I realize that if I'm up there nibbling, I'm gonna get myself in trouble. I'm better off just letting it eat and seeing what they can do with it. It's been working out so far."

It's been working out because Kimbrel's stuff has played up in the month of May. His velocity has increased and it's made his breaking ball more effective because hitters have to chase it more than they do when they're ahead in the count. He's also been able to throw it for strikes.

"A lot," catcher J.T. Realmuto said of the improvement of Kimbrel's stuff since the early days of the season. "Even he would say himself he didn’t feel like he had the zip on his fastball. He wasn’t commanding the ball very well. His breaking ball was a ball almost every time. Now he’s doing a really good job. His velocity ticked up a lot. It’s coming out of his hand well. He’s getting the ride on his fastball when he gets it up. That’s when he’s really good. It’s when he throws a fastball at the top of the zone to any hitter and they rarely get to it."

Kimbrel is as relaxed and even-keeled as they come. You don't reach 400 saves without that sort of attitude. Some pitchers thrive off of emotion. Kimbrel is more subdued, and it wasn't until the final out was recorded that he let himself feel the magnitude of the moment.

It helped that was able to enjoy it with "30 to 40" friends and family members. The Kimbrels are from Hunstville, Alabama and Craig now lives in Tennessee. Both places are between 3 and 3½ hours away from Atlanta. It lined up perfectly.

"My brothers, my parents, close family friends, they've been supporting me forever," he said. "They've put in a lot of emotions, a lot of time to support me. A lot of them were out there saying this feels weird celebrating here in Atlanta. It brought back a lot of memories of just hanging out with the same group of people in the tunnel after the game and catching up."

This was an important win for the Phillies over the first-place team in their division. Despite the Phils having eliminated the Braves from the 2022 playoffs, Atlanta is still the class of division with five straight NL East crowns and what looks like another in 2023.

Friday's win evened the series with two more games this weekend. A lot of good things happened for the Phillies. Bryson Stott and Trea Turner set the table up top and Stott wreaked havoc on the basepaths. Taijuan Walker made a quality start against the best lineup in the National League. Stott and Alec Bohm made heads-up, run-saving, game-altering defensive plays.

But still, the night became about the final man on the mound. There might never be another closer with 400 saves. Edwin Diaz has the best shot among active players and he's at 205 at 29 years old.

"When guys reach milestones like that, it's just emotional for me because I know how hard they work and how long they've played and how difficult this game is," Thomson said. "So it's really cool for me.

"Toughness. Resilience. The ability to have a short memory. You're the last guy on the mound. You're in the spotlight. When you (blow a save), you have to come back the next day and do it again. To be able to do that, you have to be mentally tough. He's been a great pitcher everywhere he's pitched."

Kimbrel has been around so long that Stott reminisced afterward about using him in video games growing up. Now he plays behind him.

"I was a big Chipper Jones fan," Stott said. "I was number 10 in high school and in college, in the minors. So I saw a lot of Craig. It’s just kind of surreal playing with somebody like that now. Playing with him in video games and all that, it’s kind of crazy to look out there and it’s actually him. But what an accomplishment, 400 saves is crazy. He’s a great teammate and I love being around him. Couldn’t happen to a better person.”

The Phillies took a night to celebrate but the show goes on. Kimbrel joked that after meeting with reporters Friday night, he still had to go through his hour-long postgame workout.

Even after a night like this?!

"Oh yeah," he said. "We've got to get ready for tomorrow, still got a game to win tomorrow. It's not just about 400. It's about getting some wins."

Probably the sort of mind set required to join such an exclusive club, one that may never welcome another member. The last man to 400 might have done so in a Phillies uniform.

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