Phillies Rival Kimbrel Dominant in San Diego

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Just a day before the 2015 regular season was set to begin, the Atlanta Braves and San Diego Padres pulled off one of the most unexpected deals in recent baseball history. The Braves acquired two of the Padres’ top prospects, including pitcher Matt Wisler, in addition to outfielders Carlos Quentin and Cameron Maybin.

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In return, the Padres received arguably the best and most consistent closer in the game for the past five seasons, Craig Kimbrel. The Braves were a rebuilding team, while the Padres were a team pushing all-in, hoping to end their eight year playoff drought.

Prior to landing Kimbrel, the team had netted 2013 AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers from the Rays, two-time all-star slugger Matt Kemp from the Dodgers, promising young catcher Derek Norris from the A’s, and Kimbrel’s teammate in Atlanta, Justin Upton, a three-time all-star himself. On the pitching side of things, the team signed one of the top free-agent arms on the market in James Shields to add to their already impressive starting rotation.

With the addition of Kimbrel just before the season, the Padres seemed to have all the right pieces put in place to contend for the NL West division title. The offense would be powerful, the rotation would keep them in the game, and the bullpen — which had the second-lowest ERA in baseball in 2014, would be anchored by an elite shut-down closer.

It’s easy to see why the Padres wanted to trade for Kimbrel, even if they already did have a capable closer in Joaquin Benoit. Though just age 26 at the time of the trade, Kimbrel’s track record was stunning.

Atlanta drafted Kimbrel in the 3rd round of the 2008 MLB Amateur Draft out of Wallace State Community College, not too far from his hometown of Huntsville, Alabama. Kimbrel would lead the National League in Saves during four of his five seasons in Atlanta, and has recorded 40 or more saves in every full season he has played.

In his rookie year of 2011, Kimbrel notched 46 saves and struck out an amazing 127 batters in 77 innings on his way to being named NL Rookie of the Year. The next season, Kimbrel nailed down 42 saves and pitched to a 1.01 ERA while opposing batters hit just .126 off of the hard-throwing righty. His 1.01 ERA ranked second best among qualified relievers in the MLB.

In 2013, at the age of 25, Kimbrel reached 50 saves and blew just four opportunities. In 68 games pitched, Kimbrel allowed only nine earned runs. Before the 2014 season, the Braves locked up Kimbrel to a 4-year, $42 million contract. Even as the Braves struggled that season, Kimbrel shut the door in the ninth inning with his team ahead 47 times — accounting for more than half of his team’s total wins.

His total numbers from his time in Atlanta are eye-popping. Kimbrel closed out 186 out of a possible 205 games for the Braves. In five seasons there, his overall record was 15-10. In 289 innings, Kimbrel fanned a staggering 476 batters and compiled a 1.43 ERA. He was selected to four consecutive All-Star games from 2011-2014 and finished in the top ten voting for NL Cy Young each of those years.

Even with all the talent the Padres added to their club this year, the team has been unable to find sustained success on the field. Kemp has hit just .257 with a disappointing 11 home runs. Myers has been injured for much of the year, and Shields, who got a $75 million contract from San Diego, has just 8 wins in what has been an inconsistent season. The team stumbled to a 41-49 record before the All-Star break and found themselves 10 games out of the division lead.

While some of the other acquisitions have faltered, Kimbrel has been steady and done his part to help the team all season. He racked up 23 saves prior to the Midsummer Classic, blowing just one of his opportunities. Thanks to his upper 90s fastball and knuckle-curve that dives out of the zone, Kimbrel has 58 punchouts in 42.1 innings pitched this season.

Talk about Padres general manager A.J. Preller blowing the whole thing up escalated as the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline drew near, with Kimbrel being linked to the Yankees, Astros and Diamondbacks. In the end, no moves were made, and the Padres still believe they can factor into the NL Wildcard race.

The Friars have played better recently, having gone 11-7 since the All-Star break and sit just four games under .500. Kimbrel has picked up his game, too. Owning a 3.24 ERA in the first half of the season, he has a 1.00 flat ERA in the second half and added eight more saves. His 31 total saves this season trail only the Pirates’ Mark Melancon, who has 33, and Trevor Rosenthal of the Cardinals, who has 32 among NL closers.

Kimbrel has been everything the Padres and their fans could have hoped for. Now they just hope the rest of the team will play the way they are capable of performing. Kimbrel and the Padres take on a Phillies team with whom the righty is very familiar. In 34 games against the Fightins, Kimbrel has gone 22 of 25 in save opportunities. He also holds a fantastic 0.84 ERA and has K’d 46 in 32.1 innings.

In what should be a series where there won’t be much offense, there’s a good chance Kimbrel gets a chance to gain ground on the 2015 MLB saves lead. The series starts Friday night in San Diego with a 10:10pm EDT first pitch.

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