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Mighty 'pen big reason Braves in first place

Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel throws against the Cleveland Indians in the ninth inning last week in Atlanta. (Tami Chappell/Reuters)

Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel throws against the Cleveland Indians in the ninth inning last week in Atlanta. (Tami Chappell/Reuters)

The bullpen continues to be a rock for the Braves.

In addition to Craig Kimbrel, who has been one of the most successful closers in the National League, the Braves have gotten outstanding efforts from those in the front and middle of the bullpen. Their effectiveness has been instrumental in helping the Braves post an 85-54 record, which is the best in baseball even after Wednesday’s 5-2 loss to the New York Mets.

The Braves bullpen is 26-10 and has retired 70 percent of the first batters faced and allowed only 24 percent of inherited runners to score. It’s more amazing when you consider the Braves lost their two dominant left-handed setup men — Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty — to Tommy John surgery this spring.

“(Kimbrel) is almost automatic for us,” Braves starter Kris Medlen said. “It’s great to have him and all the other guys in the pen have done a great job. It’s easy for Fredi (Gonzalez) to go to them because they’ve done the job all year.”

Kimbrel leads the major league in saves. He earlier became the first reliever in major league history to save 40 games in each of his first three seasons. He broke the team record for most consecutive saves converted, breaking the mark of 27 held by John Smoltz.

One of those who have stepped forward is left-hander Luis Avilan, who has gotten comfortable in his role as the primary setup man. Avilan has made 65 appearances and had a stretch of 35 scoreless appearances earlier this summer.

The right-hander who has stepped forward is David Carpenter, who began the year as a mop-up guy, who ended up supplanting Anthony Varvaro for more responsibility. Carpenter has a power arm and is capable of throwing more than one inning.

The Braves added veteran southpaw Scott Downs via a trade from the Angels and he has not been scored upon in 44 of his last 76 outings. Varvaro and Luis Ayala, a pair of right-handers, have provided depth and innings.

The question mark is right-hander Jordan Walden, who tweaked a groin and hasn’t pitched since Aug. 21 at New York. Walden spent one stint on the 15-game disabled list with right shoulder inflammation in May, but had been reliable as the right-handed bridge to Kimbrel.

PLAYER NOTES

• LHP Mike Minor, who is 13-5 with a 3.08 ERA, faces the Phillies for the first time this season as the Braves open a three-game series in Philadelphia tonight.

He was 2-1 with a 3.46 ERA in four starts against them last year and is 2-2 with a 3.94 ERA in his career. Minor hasn’t lost since July 21 in Chicago against the White Sox, going 4-0 with three no-decisions.

• 1B Freddie Freeman hit his 19th homer of the season and the second in three games against the Mets on Wednesday, tying his career best of 94 RBIs set last year. His RBI total is the most by a Braves player since Jeff Francoeur (105) and Chipper Jones (102) went over the 100 mark in 2007.

• CF B.J. Upton was 0-for-2 with a walk and sacrifice fly Wednesday, his averaging slipping back under .200 to .199. He was 11-for-27 on the homestand. He had a four-hit game against the Marlins on Saturday that included the game winner in the 11th inning.

• OF Jordan Schafer, who turned 27 on Wednesday, was a late scratch from the lineup because of a left quad contusion after fouling a ball off his leg as a pinch hitter in Tuesday night’s game against the Mets. He was 4-for-5 with three stolen bases against the Mets on Monday and hit .290 with five steals during the homestand.

RHP Jordan Walden’s return to the bullpen is on hold after he cut a throwing session short Monday after just five pitches. He has been sidelined by a groin strain since pitching two scoreless innings with four strikeouts against the Mets in New York on Aug. 21. He experienced soreness jogging on the field in St. Louis the following weekend.

QUOTE TO NOTE

“He’s a guy that can pitch. He’s got three pitches or four that he’s throwing in the strike zone whenever he feels like it. If you’ve got four pitches that you can command, it’s going to be a tough day at the plate.” — INF Elliot Johnson, on RHP Dillon Gee, who was the winning pitcher in the New York Mets’ 5-2 win over Atlanta on Wednesday.