By Russell Moore
The Cullman Times
Hunting, working out and spending time with family are priorities for a lot of 24-year-olds. For Craig Kimbrel, a former Wallace State pitcher and Atlanta Braves closer, those are things he considers components of a relaxing offseason.
“My life is uncomplicated. It’s awesome I’m living my dream right now playing for the Braves, but otherwise I’m still the same guy I’ve always been,” said Kimbrel, who stopped by Cullman last week to speak at a baseball camp. “I come home in the offseason and hunt, work out and spend time with my family. When the season starts up, it’s nothing but baseball. That’s about it.”
Sounds simple enough.
Kimbrel has made baseball accomplishments appear effortless as well. In less than three full seasons in the major leagues, the Lee-Huntsville graduate has established himself as one of the game’s most dominant closers and is one of the more recognizable players in all of Braves country. Kimbrel, a two-time National League All-Star and unanimous 2011 NL Rookie of the Year, has collected 88 saves during the last two seasons, finishing with 42 saves and a 1.01 ERA in 2012, recording 116 strikeouts in only 62 2/3 innings.
Kimbrel made an appearance last week at Cullman’s All Sports Training Performance (ASTP) facility to address baseball camp participants, from ages 6 to 14, and to sign autographs.
He also spared some time to discuss his collegiate career.
“Coach (Randy) Putman does a great job. You may not like at the time how hard he pushes you mentally, but you are very thankful after the fact. It definitely makes you a better ballplayer,” said Kimbrel, who set a MLB rookie record with 46 saves in 2011. “To this day, when I dig down mentally and need to find that extra gear, it comes back to the mental toughness I developed here. If you’re not having a good week on the mound, you have no choice than to be mentally tough to get through it. You learn those things by experience and being put through certain situations.”
At Wallace State, Kimbrel played during the 2007 and 2008 seasons. In his freshman campaign, Kimbrel went 8-0 with a 1.99 ERA as a freshman, serving as the team’s closer and spot starter, and was drafted by the Braves in the 33rd round of the major league draft. Kimbrel returned to the Lions for his sophomore season and finished 9-3 with a 2.88 ERA, striking out 123 hitters in 81 innings, primarily as a starter. He was drafted again by the Braves in 2008, selected in the third round.
Kimbrel made a speedy climb up the Braves organizational ladder and made his major league debut in 2010, becoming the second of four former Wallace State players to crack the big show in consecutive seasons, joining Derek Holland in 2009, Graham Godfrey in 2011 and Jake Elmore last season.
“It is a special feat to have that much success coming from one program. Not many four-year schools can even claim that, so we should take pride in that accomplishment,” Kimbrel said. “It’s a cool thing to say all of us went to Wallace State close to the same point in our careers, and all made it to where we need to be.”
Kimbrel marked a non-baseball milestone in his life last month, marrying Ashley Holt, a former Wallace State cheerleader, whom he met while in college at Hanceville.
“It’s been a busy month. All of the wedding planning can be stressful, but we’re as happy as can be. Ashley and I met at Wallace State, so it’s safe to say Wallace State has been good to me in many, many ways,” Kimbrel said.
Kimbrel explained to the camp participants and their parents that once the Braves season is complete each year, he doesn’t throw a baseball until the first week of January, giving his arm the adequate rest it needs in the offseason.
Once spring training arrives in February, Kimbrel will begin preparations to play for the United States in the World Baseball Classic, an international baseball tournament held every four years. Japan has won the two previous WBC’s sinc its inception in 2006. Kimbrel will report to Arizona to train for the WBC, while the Braves conduct spring drills in Florida.
“I’m excited about the World Baseball Classic. I hope I can help Team USA can do some good things,” Kimbrel said.
Then, during the upcoming 2013 season, Kimbrel and the Braves will enter the post-Chipper Jones era, seeking to improve upon last season’s NL wild card postseason berth.
“We have a good team that has played together for a while and a lot of our younger guys came up together through the minor leagues. We mesh well in the clubhouse and have great team morale,” Kimbrel said. “We are going to miss Chipper Jones and his experience and presence, but we’re still going to be a contending team.”