LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Craig Kimbrel struck out the last two men he faced before heading off to play for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, but the Braves closer had hardly been having his usual success before then.
"If I hadn't finished the way I did, I wouldn't feel too good about it," Kimbrel said after escaping a bases-loaded jam without more damage on Saturday against Houston. "But I do now. It all just clicked and came to me at a pretty good time."
That was good news for Team USA and the Braves. Kimbrel is very important to both. The Braves were hardly unhappy when starter Kris Medlen changed his mind about pitching in the WBC and withdrew. They remain concerned about Kimbrel, who has saved 88 games the past two seasons.
"I hope he comes back in one piece," manager Fredi Gonzalez said.
The Braves were worried about Kimbrel trying to do too much too soon in preparation for the WBC and that appeared to be the case.
Kimbrel allowed runs in the last three of his four Grapefruit League appearances before departing Sunday, giving up a home run and struggling with his control.
The hard-throwing right-hander walked two, hit a batter and allowed an RBI single before recovering against the Astros and getting the two strikeouts.
Kimbrel ended up with a 6.75 ERA in his four outings, allowing five hits and five walks. He had just one strikeout until the final two against the Astros.
That is in strong contrast to last spring, when Kimbrel allowed just one hit in eight Grapefruit League appearances and struck out 10.
But Kimbrel had a different timetable this year. If Team USA advances past the second round, Kimbrel won't return from the WBC until just over a week before the start of the regular season.
Kimbrel followed up his National League rookie of the year season in 2011 by posting a 1.01 ERA and saving 42 games in 2012. He struck out 116 in 62 innings, with more than half of the 331 batters he faced whiffing.
Team USA opens WBC play on Friday in Phoenix against Mexico and Kimbrel will be Joe Torre's closer.
"I think he's ready," Gonzalez said. "We've done all that we can here to get him ready for those situations. They'll take care of him over there."