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Whatever their nickname, says Ross, "they're three of the best, and they're all three on our team." That development has many sources—from the players' talent, to Atlanta's scouting department, to the tutelage of the club's pitching coach, Roger McDowell, himself a successful reliever for a dozen years. But everyone agrees that a significant influence came from a man who spent just one of his 16 major league seasons in Atlanta, but whose impact is poised to extend far longer.
In the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 2 of the 2010 NLDS, the Giants' Andres Torres laid down a sacrifice bunt. Billy Wagner, the Braves' 39-year-old closer who is fifth alltime with 422 saves, fielded the ball and whirled to throw to first. No one knew it immediately, but a new era for the Braves had begun. Wagner strained an oblique muscle. He wouldn't pitch again in the series, and after Atlanta lost it in four games, he retired.
The day after his injury, Wagner approached Kimbrel in batting practice. "He said, 'You're going to get your chance,'" Kimbrel recalls. The 5'10" Wagner saw a lot of himself in the 5'11" Kimbrel, another pitcher with a blazing fastball that belied his short stature. He also saw himself in O'Flaherty and Venters, lefties like him. All three pitchers were, like Wagner, from humble, blue-collar backgrounds. Kimbrel, from Huntsville, Ala., is the son of an electrician. Venters, a native of the Orlando area, is the son of a warehouse manager. O'Flaherty's father retired last year from his job as a mailman in Walla Walla, Wash. And all three had to overcome significant hurdles to wind up in a major league bullpen—as had Wagner, who grew up poor in Virginia and threw 84 miles per hour as a high school senior.
In the summer of 2006, when Kimbrel was 18 and two weeks from starting at Alabama's Wallace State Community College, he was helping his father install wire in a house that was under construction when 800 pounds of sheetrock fell on his left foot, snapping it nearly in half. "Only bone that didn't break was my pinky toe," Kimbrel says. For the next six months Kimbrel was forced to throw from his knees. He became so proficient at it that he could cover the length of a football field. "It really strengthened his lower back muscles and his arm," says Wallace State's longtime coach Randy Putman. By the time he was again upright, Kimbrel's fastball had improved from the high 80s to the mid-90s, and he was on his way to being a third-round draft pick in 2008. "Breaking my foot was probably one of the best things to ever happen to me," he says.
As a starter in rookie ball in 2004, Venters, a 30th-round pick out of high school by the Braves in '03, was 1--6 with an ERA of 5.74; as recently as 2009 he had an ERA in the minors of 4.42. O'Flaherty, in seven games as a Mariners reliever three years ago, had an ERA of 20.25. He suffered the indignity of being cut that off-season by the team that had drafted him (in the sixth round in '03). The Braves claimed him off waivers, and when Wagner arrived in Atlanta's camp two springs ago, he found a trio that was talented but unfinished. So he finished them. "When I came up, I didn't have closers coming up to me trying to help," says Wagner. "I tried to help them out as much as possible because it only made the team better."
With Kimbrel, Wagner stressed the importance of deploying his heat more intelligently. "Understanding that if you have a better chance of getting the guy behind the current hitter out, you don't have to go right at the current guy," Kimbrel explains. That lesson has paid off. While Kimbrel's strikeout rate has plummeted from 17.4 batters per nine innings last season—the highest single-season mark ever for a pitcher with more than 20 appearances—to 14.8 per nine this year, that rate still ranks sixth alltime, and he has cut his walk rate nearly in half.
For Venters, Wagner's lessons concerned resource management. "Once I got the ball in my hand, I used to just go out there and blow it out for as long as I could go," says Venters. That mind-set doomed him as a starter and initially hampered him as a reliever, as he was known to throw as many as 50 warmup pitches in the bullpen. "Billy would tell me, 'You can't do that. You can't pitch on a nightly basis and throw 50 warmups,'" Venters says. Wagner encouraged O'Flaherty to make better use of his tailing sinker, which has particularly helped him against righties.
"You have to start with special arms, but I really believe that the time they had last year with Billy goes a long way in explaining why they're doing what they're doing now," says Braves G.M. Frank Wren. The result is that even though the Braves sustained key losses to their bullpen for the second straight off-season—Wagner last winter, Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez the winter before—they have an elite relief corps. Atlanta relievers have a cumulative ERA of 2.93, two spots behind the Padres' major league--best 2.90.
Since June 1 Atlanta is 20--2 in games in which Kimbrel, O'Flaherty and Venters have all appeared. The only question is whether their workload might catch up with them all at once, making it tougher to shorten games in the postseason. Each of the three ranks in the majors' top eight in appearances. Even so, none has any complaint about his usage ("We want that bullpen phone to ring, man," says O'Flaherty), and Gonzalez has become vigilant about calling for them only when necessary. O'Flaherty threw fewer innings in August than in any other month. Venters matched his lowest monthly total; Kimbrel had his third-lowest.
They will be needed more than ever in the most important month, as the Braves' offense has begun to sputter (it scored 115 runs in August, 24th in the majors) and their ace, righthander Tommy Hanson, hasn't pitched since Aug. 6 due to shoulder soreness. Even if their nickname needs work—Cerberus, after the three-headed dog that in Greek mythology guards the gates of hell, has been floated—O'Ventbrel seems primed to do for the Braves what the Nasty Boys did for the Reds two decades ago. "You know if you get into the seventh inning and have a lead, your percentage of winning is probably pretty high, which is not something we take for granted," says McDowell. "But it sure is nice."