KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- If Team USA proves successful in the World Baseball Classic, Craig Kimbrel will likely spend the next three weeks away from his Braves teammates. When he returns, he can only hope to be sharper than he was over the course of this past week.
Kimbrel's early exhibition season struggles continued, as he allowed a run in his third consecutive appearance during Saturday's 6-5 loss to the Astros at Osceola County Stadium. But the dominant closer provided some hope, as he ended the outing with consecutive strikeouts within a span of seven pitches.
"Yeah, I gave up runs, but I kind of figured it out today," Kimbrel said. "I figured out what I needed to and where I am. If I hadn't finished the way I did, I wouldn't feel too good about it. But I do now. It all just clicked and came to me at a pretty good time."
In the process of missing the strike zone with seven of the first eight pitches he threw on Saturday, Kimbrel issued a walk and hit a batter. This set the stage for Brandon Laird (younger brother of Braves catcher Gerald Laird) to send a one-out single to center field. After Jason Jaramillo followed with a walk, Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell made a beneficial visit to the mound.
"I guess I went out there and tried to be too fine," Kimbrel said. "I tried to place the ball, and I guess I'm not too good at that. Roger came out and said, 'Quit thinking and just throw the ball.' That's what I did, and it worked out for me."
To prepare himself for the Classic, Kimbrel appeared in four of the first nine exhibition games the Braves have played. In the process of completing four innings within this accelerated schedule, he allowed five hits, recorded three strikeouts and issued five walks. He was charged with one earned run in each of his final three appearances.
While the regular season is still more than four weeks away, these are not the results expected from Kimbrel, who posted a 1.01 ERA and limited opponents to a .186 on-base percentage during the regular season last year. In his 62 2/3 innings, he notched 116 strikeouts and issued 14 walks.
"He's getting his outings in and getting his innings in," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "Now, we've got to send him away. I think he's ready. We've done all that we can here to get him ready for those situations. They'll take care of him over there."
Kimbrel will fly to Phoenix early Sunday morning to prepare for the Classic. If Team USA advances past the second round, Kimbrel will not return to Braves camp before March 20.