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Kimbrel looks to duplicate dominant 2012 season

Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel will play for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. (Associated Press)
Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel will play for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. (Associated Press)

Craig Kimbrel was like a little kid Saturday in the Braves clubhouse in Kissimee, Fla., talking excitedly about his chance to work with a couple of Atlanta greats at the World Baseball Classic.

Greg Maddux is handling the pitchers for the U.S. team. Dale Murphy will be the first-base coach.

Someone mentioned getting the three of them together for a picture.

“Be sure to send me a copy of that,” said Kimbrel, an Alabama native who grew up cheering for the Braves. “I want to get them to sign it.”

After the season he had in 2012, Maddux and Murphy may want their own autographed copies.

Quite simply, Kimbrel had one of the greatest years ever for a closer: 42 saves, a 1.01 ERA, just 27 hits allowed in 62 2/3 innings, an astonishing 116 strikeouts – more than half of the 231 batters he faced.

Now, what to do for an encore?

“I can’t dwell over last year,” Kimbrel said. “That’s in the past. It’s not going to help me this year. If anything, it’s going to magnify me going out there and having a big target on my back.”

When Kimbrel is on, he’s simply unhittable. He can blow batters away with a 100 mph fastball. When he mixes in a knee-bending slider – which is harder than most pitchers’ fastballs – well, it just doesn’t seem fair. He’s also improved his control dramatically, issuing only 14 walks last season. When called up to the big leagues for the first time in 2010, he walked 16 in 20 2/3 innings.

After living in the moment most of the way, he finally glanced at the entire body of work late in the year.

Like everyone else, he was amazed by the numbers.

“I couldn’t have told you I was going to do that. I don’t think anyone could have,” Kimbrel said. “Still, it was a disappointing year because we didn’t win the World Series.”

Kimbrel is the finisher in one of baseball’s best bullpens. Lefties Eric O’Flaherty (3-0, 1.73 ERA) and Jonny Venters (5-4, 3.22) handle the setup roles. They’ll be joined by hard-throwing right-hander Jordan Walden, acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Angels. Promising youngsters Luis Avilan and Cory Gearrin bolster the depth.

If the Braves are leading after six innings, they’ll like their chances.

If they’re still on top going to the ninth, it’s a virtual lock.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” Heyward said. “I really appreciate that. You can hand the game over to somebody and know it’s going to be over.”

Kimbrel faded down the stretch in 2011, including a disappointing finale in which he failed to hold a ninth-inning lead when the Braves needed to win to force a one-game playoff for the wild card. But, like all great closers, he wiped that memory away and came back stronger than ever in 2012.

It helped that the Braves were more judicious about his workload. Kimbrel’s appearances dipped from 79 to 63.

Kimbrel worked an inning for the Braves on Saturday in a spring training game against Houston, then headed off to join Team USA in Arizona.

He’s thrilled to have a chance to represent his country.

“It’s going to be a great experience,” he said. “I get to play with a good group of guys that I’ve never played with before, and a group of coaches who’ve played the game – been there, done that. It will be fun to pick their brains.”

Gallardo could be limited

Brewers right-hander Yovani Gallardo has a minor groin strain that will cause him to miss his next spring training start and could limit him from playing for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic.

Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke that Gallardo tweaked his groin last Tuesday against Seattle. Gallardo was scheduled to start today against the Cubs and then leave for the WBC, but he will instead throw a bullpen session for the Brewers.

Netherlands scores upset

Andruw Jones got two hits and Diegomar Markwell and Orlando Yntema combined for seven innings of four-hit ball to help the Netherlands upset South Korea 5-0 in Taipei, Taiwan.

Roger Bernadina drove in two runs and Dutch shortstop Andrelton Simmons went 3 for 5, including two doubles.

Host Taiwan beat Australia 4-1 in the other Group B game earlier Saturday.

Japan edges Brazil

Two-time defending champion Japan had to rally to beat Brazil 5-3 in its opening game.

Host Japan trailed 3-2 before adding three runs in the top of the eighth inning in front of a crowd of 28,181 at the Fukuoka Dome.