Craig Kimbrel set the Atlanta Braves’ all-time saves record Friday night. He passed John Smoltz with his 155th career save.
I’m not sure what’s the crazier part of the story -- the fact the prior saves leader was more of a starting pitcher, or the fact Kimbrel just turned 26 years old.
The closer position has not been Atlanta’s best on the diamond, at least historically. Atlanta’s first real closer was Cecil Upshaw, who saved 78 games from 1967 until he was traded to Houston in 1973.
Gene Garber was the first one I remember watching for the Braves. He was acquired in June of 1978 from Philadelphia for Dick Ruthven. Garber made his mark six weeks later by stopping Pete Rose’s 44-game hitting streak. They called him “Geno,” and for 10 seasons he was the main Atlanta reliever, even though the Braves tried several times to replace him.
Before the 1984 season the Braves attempted to sign free agent closer Rich “Goose” Gossage, and then the next winter they did ink Bruce Sutter to a big contract. Sutter never stayed healthy, and the Braves were fortunate Garber was still around.
Garber finished with 141 saves for the Braves, which is good enough for third on the list behind Kimbrel and Smoltz.
After Garber left in 1987, there wasn’t much need for a closer for a few years. The Braves had Joe Boever and Jim Acker around, but it wasn’t until 1991, the season the Braves got good again, that a closer was required.
They started that season with Juan Berenguer, who was affectionately nicknamed “Senor Smoke.” He did well but got hurt in mid-August, which forced the Braves to acquire Alejandro Pena from the New York Mets. Pena was great the rest of the 1991 season, and even though he was on the mound when Minnesota won the World Series that October, Pena is well-remembered for his effectiveness as a Braves’ reliever.
But that season, a young kid came up from the minors who made an even bigger impact. Mark Wohlers was only 21 when the Braves called him up in mid-August to replace Berenguer on the roster. Wohlers threw faster than 100 miles an hour and became the full-time closer in 1995. He recorded the biggest out in Atlanta’s history, when he got Carlos Baerga to fly out to Marquis Grissom to clinch the Braves’ only World Series title in 1995.
Wohlers had 112 saves for the Braves, which is fourth-best on the list. There were two more closers in the 1990s who sandwiched Wohlers’ time in Atlanta. Greg McMichael and Kerry Ligtenberg both had 44 saves for the Braves.
After Ligtenberg had elbow surgery in 1999, Macon’s John Rocker took over as closer. He was awesome in his first three years with the Braves, but we all know what happened after that. When Rocker was traded to Cleveland in 2001, that’s when Smoltz took over.
It was no shock that Smoltz was tremendous in that role. His three-plus seasons as closer only solidified his Hall of Fame resume. But after Atlanta needed Smoltz back in the rotation in 2005, that’s when things got rough.
Let’s just go through the names and move on, shall we? Chris Reitsma, Dan Kolb and Bob Wickman made things interesting for about three seasons. OK, that’s enough of that.
Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez were a bit better, and then we were all treated to watch Billy Wagner’s final season in the big leagues in 2010.
But when Kimbrel came up that same season, it was obvious the Braves had someone special. He’s now the best closer in baseball, and this record might not be the final one he breaks before his days are over.
Kimbrel is on pace for 40-something more saves this year, which would put him close to 180 for his career. He’s still almost 500 away from Mariano Rivera’s record for saves, but Rivera had only five saves going into the season when he turned 27 years old. If Kimbrel stays healthy, considering his age, he’s going to have a chance to have a historic career.
The best news is he’s locked into a contract through 2018, and maybe the new Braves’ stadium will give the team the money to lock Kimbrel up forever. Considering the shaky history of Braves’ closers, Kimbrel is definitely a keeper.
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 at www.twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.