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Braves' Kimbrel hopes best is yet to come

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DALTON, Ga. (WRCB) -- Craig Kimbrel could be considered boring compared to some of baseball's best closers.

He doesn't have a crazy beard, a wild celebration fist pump or a boastful personality. Even his jog to the mound from the bullpen against the backdrop of Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" is rather pedestrian by comparison.

Luckily he didn't need them to become one of the most most feared pitchers in baseball. A live arm and a "get it done" mindset took care of that.

"Ever since he's been a Brave, all he's done is get better and better," said Atlanta general manager Frank Wren. "He's turned into the best closer in the game, and that's awfully impressive."

Wren has seen countless youngster develop over the years, but few have more fun to follow than Kimbrel.

The Huntsville, Ala., native was a third round pick in the 2008 draft, and needed just two full seasons to get to the big leagues. The expectations are always high with a draft pick in the early rounds, but Wren admits Kimbrel has definitely exceeded expectations.

"He came with that closer mentality. He expected to get the job done. He had great stuff and a great work ethic, and since he's gotten to the big leagues it hasn't changed," Wren said at Monday's Braves Caravan stop in Dalton. "I don't know that any of us are smart enough to project that, but when you watch him pitch on a nightly basis it's pretty impressive."

Kimbrel set a rookie record with 46 saves in 2011, but struggled in the season's final month.

While he logged a lot of innings, the right-hander is adamant he wasn't worn out. He chalks the struggles up as a learning experience, working tirelessly to make sure those mistakes don't happen again.

"It was pitch selection and where I threw my pitches, it wasn't exhaustion or anything like that," said Kimbrel, who rebounded to convert 42 of 45 save opportunities in 2012. "I felt great at the end of last year and I feel great now."

In fact, he feels better than he ever has to start a season.

Pitchers and catchers don't report for spring training for another ten days, but Kimbrel is already a few weeks into his preseason preps.

The 24-year-old was invited to pitch for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic in March, and the rare opportunity provided an avenue to jump-start his training ahead of schedule.

"I have to be ramped up about a month earlier than I would for the regular season, but that's okay with me," Kimbrel said. "By March 1, I'm ready to get out there in front of big crowds and pitch in games that mean something, so I'm excited for it."

One would think front office guys like Wren would be a bit hesitant to let their top players compete in the global exhibition, but Kimbrel did enough to convince his general manager the reward could out-weigh the risk.

"We talked about it a lot, and he's told me in the past that it could even be an advantage for him to play because he gets going earlier in the calendar," Wren said. "He didn't feel like last year he was as sharp in April as he wanted to be, which is interesting because we all though he was phenomenal.

"He's hoping with the early training he'll be more on his game at the start of the season, so watch out National League if that happens."

Kimbrel doesn't worry about personal goals, keeping most of his focus on team pursuits, mainly helping the Braves win a World Series.

But the 2012 NL all-star knows the work he puts in to help his team will offer a few rewards along the way, including the World Baseball Classic, so he intends to make the most of them.

"It's a chance to represent my country and wear USA on my shirt. As a baseball player you don't get any other opportunities to play for Team USA," Kimbrel said. "I'm honored and excited to be asked to play, and I'm looking forward to it.

"Hopefully Team USA can go out and do some good things and bring back gold."

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