The word closer often has been a four-letter word for the Atlanta Braves. Too many times it has been the one position that has kept the team from being more successful.
The closer has been a strength on the team on a couple of occasions. Mark Wohlers was really, really good before he got really, really bad. John Smoltz was unbelievable for three-and-a-half years, but when he went back to the starting rotation, we had the horror of watching pitchers like Chris Reitsma, Dan Kolb and Bob Wickman try to take his place.
Two years ago when Billy Wagner finished his magnificent career with the Braves, we were reminded of what a closer can mean to a team. He was lights out, and it wasnt a coincidence that Atlanta made the playoffs for the first time in five years with Wagner closing things out.
But as dominant as Wagner was for that one season, we are now seeing something even more remarkable. Wagners replacement, 24-year-old Craig Kimbrel, is in the middle of a tremendous season. And he might be single-handedly changing the history of Atlanta Braves relievers.
If youve watched Kimbrel this season, you dont really need statistics to know how great he has been. But the numbers are scary. Before Tuesdays game against the San Francisco Giants, Kimbrel had struck out 62 of the 129 batters he had faced. Thats 48 percent of the hitters who have faced Kimbrel this year who have gone back to the dugout undoubtedly looking back at the mound wondering why this kid makes it look so easy.
Its like Kimbrel is in his back yard facing imaginary hitters and believing hes getting every one of them out. But hes doing it in real life, on a real mound, in the major leagues.
Kimbrel has pitched 35 innings in 35 games, and he has allowed only 14 hits and walked 10 batters. Thats 24 baserunners all season. Since he blew his only save of the season May 2, Kimbrel has saved 19 straight games and allowed only two runs on eight hits in 25 innings.
Hes the main reason the Braves are 39-1 this season when leading after six innings. Thats also why its so important for the starting rotation to be better in the second half. If the starters do their job, and give the Braves a chance to lead after six innings, with this bullpen and this closer, chances are the Braves are going to win.
If you look at all the teams in contention in the NL and look at how they match up, the one area Atlanta will have the overwhelming advantage is with the bullpen -- mainly because of Kimbrel. No one else is even close to being as dominant this year as Kimbrel.
In fact, its hard to even look at the best closers in baseball history -- pitchers like Bruce Sutter (pre-Atlanta, of course), Rich Gossage and Mariano Rivera -- and find a season like the one Kimbrel is having. He has been that good. Those others were great at getting outs, but even they didnt strike out hitters like Kimbrel has this season.
Theres no doubt Atlanta needs Jonny Venters back pitching well and needs Eric OFlaherty to continue his good work. But with Kimbrel lingering and waiting to pitch the ninth inning, no team is going to have more of an edge than the Braves.
This is the type of closer you can imagine pitching in a Game 7 of the World Series in the ninth inning. Hes a game-changer, as teams will know theyre going to have to get to the Braves early if theyre going to have any chance at all.
Atlanta got a big boost from starter Ben Sheets on Sunday, and chances are theyll improve the rotation again before the July 31 trade deadline. And we know why thats important. With this closer, getting the game in the hands of Kimbrel will give Atlanta a tremendous chance at doing something special this season.
Listen to The Bill Shanks Show from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill on Twitter@yahoo.com.