Posted: Saturday March 2, 2013 7:33 PM

Kimbrel looks to duplicate dominant 2012 season

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(Eds: Updates with details, quotes. With AP Photos.)

KISSIMEE, Fla. (AP) - Craig Kimbrel was like a little kid Saturday in the Braves clubhouse, 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.

"I'm proud of what I did last year,'' he said.

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.''

Braves outfielder Jason Heyward has gotten the chance to face Kimbrel in batting practice, but knows it's "nothing like Turner Field in the ninth inning of a one-run game.''

After Danny Espinosa hit one of three homers the 24-year-old closer gave up in 2012, Heyward made sure to give props to the Washington second baseman.

"I went over to him the next day and was like, `Man, that's impressive,''' Heyward recalled. "I don't think he even knew how impressive it was at the time. He knows now.''

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, which kept him strong throughout the season. Atlanta can't afford to run him out there too much, given the intensity he pours into every trip to the mound. He's got that closer's mentality. The pedal is always pushed to the floor. He's never looking backward or too far ahead.

"I just stay year to year,'' he said. "I can't sit back and say I want to play this many years, I want to do this, I want to do that. I've just got to take it one year at a time.''

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.''

And take a few pictures.

NOTES: C Brian McCann, coming back from offseason shoulder surgery, has given up on the idea of being ready for opening day. He said the doctors won't release him to play until April 16, six months to the day after his operation. If he's able to work in some simulated situations before then, it might speed his comeback. But he won't be able to get into a full-fledged rehab game until the season is more than two weeks old. ... SS Andrelton Simmons had three hits, including a pair of doubles, as the Netherlands opened the WBC with a 5-0 upset of South Korea. Former Atlanta OF Andrew Jones chipped in with two hits for the Dutch. ... RHP Brandon Beachy has started throwing off the mound, but he's not expected back until around midseason after Tommy John surgery.

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

 
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