HANCEVILLE – Former Wallace State pitcher Craig Kimbrel became the Atlanta Braves' all-time saves leader on Friday night, notching his 155th career save in the team's 5-2 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks in Phoenix.
Wallace State baseball coach Randy Putman has tuned in for nearly all 155 of Kimbrel's saves, brimming with pride as he's watched his former right-hander.
"It's an exciting time for Craig Kimbrel and for our program. To break John Smoltz's record at such a young age is a tremendous accomplishment for Craig. I'm even more excited that Craig's better days are in front of him," said Putman, a NJCAA Hall of Fame coach who has amassed 910 career wins in 25 seasons at Wallace State. "As Craig Kimbrel's former college coach, I'm proud of him and glad he's always going to be associated with this program. Craig is a class act. He always gives credits to his teammates."
Kimbrel, who turned 26 years old on May 28, entered the 2014 season only 16 saves shy of breaking Smoltz's record and recorded a four-out save Friday night to set the new franchise record. Kimbrel, who pitched at Wallace State during the 2007 and 2008 seasons, is a three-time National League All-Star and is well on his way to a fourth straight selection later this summer.
Back in Hanceville, not many days go by without Putman getting peppered with questions about his former pitcher. National media outlets call Putman on occasions searching for anecdotes about the Braves' star closer, sometimes current Wallace State players want to learn more about his career with the Lions and now random father-son tandems stop by the college's James C. Bailey Stadium.
"It's amazing how many people come out here and bring their small children just wanting to see the mound Craig pitched on in college. It happens more than you might think," Putman said. "About a month ago, a father brought his son from Scottsboro and the father wanted to show his son the stadium Craig pitched in.
"Craig is very well-known of all across the South because he's from Alabama and is one of the Braves most popular players, if not the most popular."
Kimbrel, a Lee-Huntsville High grad, carved out a solid career at Wallace State, playing during the 2007 and 2008 seasons. In 2007, Kimbrel went 8-0 with a 1.99 ERA as a freshman, serving as the team's closer and spot starter, and was drafted by the Braves in the 33rd round of the major league draft. Kimbrel returned to the Lions for his sophomore season and finished 9-3 with a 2.88 ERA, striking out 123 hitters in 81 innings, primarily as a starter. He was drafted again by the Braves in 2008, selected in the third round.
"Coach (Randy) Putman does a great job. You may not like at the time how hard he pushes you mentally, but you are very thankful after the fact. It definitely makes you a better ballplayer," Kimbrel said in January 2013 about his time at Wallace State. "To this day, when I dig down mentally and need to find that extra gear, it comes back to the mental toughness I developed here. If you're not having a good week on the mound, you have no choice than to be mentally tough to get through it. You learn those things by experience and being put through certain situations."
Clay Jones played collegiately at Shelton State and the University of Alabama before playing in the Detroit Tigers organization for two years. While with Shelton State, Jones faced Kimbrel for two seasons and noticed a stark distinction during Kimbrel's freshman to sophomore season.
"Kimbrel came out of nowhere as far as we were concerned. Our freshman year no one had really heard of him. Derek Holland (current Texas Rangers pitcher) was kind of the No. 1 starter and Kimbrel was Wallace State's No. 3. The first time I got in the box against him I saw right away how hard he could throw, but we knew he had some control issues," Jones said. "Kimbrel was a totally different pitcher the next year we faced him. All he needed was his fastball. He located it well and just blew people away. He absolutely dominated with that one pitch because he commanded the strike zone so much better than he had as a freshman. His fastball was so good he didn't need that slider you now see him throw in the majors.
"At that point, I knew Kimbrel had a shot to be something special one day. He was really the first guy I can remember who could throw 95 miles an hour when I was in the box. It felt like you were trying to hit a bowling ball. Even if you barreled it up, it was a heavy ball."
Kimbrel made his major league debut in 2010 and recorded one save as a set-up man for then closer Billy Wagner. Kimbrel's career as a closer skyrocketed in 2011, when he saved 46 games. He added 42 saves in 2012 and a career-high 50 last season. Kimbrel led the Braves to a National League East Division title last season and the club has advanced to the postseason three times during Kimbrel's brief career.
In 2010, Kimbrel became the second of four former Wallace State players to crack the major leagues in consecutive years. Former WSCC pitcher Derek Holland debuted with the Rangers in 2009 and has pitched in two World Series, Kimbrel splashed upon the scene in 2010, Graham Godfrey made his debut in 2011 with the Oakland Athletics and Jake Elmore, currently of the A's, debuted in 2012 with the Arizona Diamondbacks, capping a remarkable string of Wallace State success stories advancing to the major leagues.