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Atlanta Braves News and Notes

Kolb set to take over as closer

Smoltz, Mazzone offer insights about high-profile role

By Mark Bowman / MLB.com

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Even though Dan Kolb comes to the Braves as an All-Star, it might take some time before he completely endears himself to an Atlanta fan base that has been spoiled over the past three years with one of the game's best closers.

Every time AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" boomed throughout Turner Field and John Smoltz emerged from the bullpen, there was a palpable excitement among Braves fans. But that chapter in the club's history has come to a close. It's now time for Kolb to prove he can be just as effective with a pennant-contending Braves team as he was last year for a Brewers team whose postseason hopes quickly faded after the All-Star break.

If Kolb is able to limit opponents to a .179 batting average like he did before the All-Star break last year, there's no doubt he'll be helping the Braves in their pursuit of a 14th consecutive division title.

If Kolb flounders down the stretch like he did late last year, posting a 6.75 ERA and allowing opponents to hit .343 against him in September, Braves fans will quickly be crying for a new hurler to assume the closer role the dominant Smoltz has occupied for the past three seasons.

Of course, the Braves aren't expecting to see anything but the Kolb who didn't allow an extra-base hit in his first 35 appearances last year. While watching the rejuvenated right-hander display this dominant form on television last year, Braves manager Bobby Cox was wondering why he wasn't familiar with the right-hander.

"He looked outstanding," Cox said. "I was wondering where they found him."

After some research, Cox found that Kolb had been a flamethrower in the Texas minor league system who hadn't been able to avoid injury. Kolb had Tommy John surgery in 2000, tore a muscle in his forearm in 2001 and partially tore his labrum in 2002.

But it's more than good health that revived Kolb's career and enabled him to notch 39 saves for the Brewers last year. It also came with the influence of Milwaukee pitching coach Mike Maddux -- also known as former Brave Greg's older brother.

Maddux's insistence that Kolb put more attention on location and less on velocity brought both results and health. This offseason was the first since 1998 that the oft-injured pitcher didn't deal with any type of arm soreness.

"At first, I wasn't big on the deal," Kolb said of changing his training methods. "But based on everything that happened last year, it was the right thing to do."

After reporting to camp last year with his usual case of a sore elbow, Kolb was instructed by Maddux to begin the transition from power to finesse. Over the next few weeks, throwing free and easy mildly disgusted a man known for his ability to throw 98 mph. But at the same time, the change also allowed for a healthy arm and results that a high-heater alone wasn't providing Kolb.

The 28-year-old Kolb, who was acquired for top pitching prospect Jose Capellan, became sold on the fact he didn't need his 98-mph fastball during an exhibition game against the Angels last year.

During that contest, he decided to throw only sliders and changeups. When he was able to slide three straight sliders past Tim Salmon, it became obvious Maddux's advice might be working.

"I started believing a little bit," Kolb said. "Then once the season started, it just took off and I didn't have any problems with it at all."

Suddenly, Kolb was locating the strike zone with great regularity and not incurring the same problems he had in the past. During the 2002 season with the Rangers, he issued 22 walks in 32 innings. Last year, he walked just 15 batters in 57 1/3 innings.

Another drastic change in Kolb's numbers came with his strikeouts. He managed just 21 strikeouts last year; but with the production Kolb had realized with his new focus on location, it wasn't a problem that the former power guy was now racking up saves in the same un-sexy manner as Dan Quisenberry once did.

"I'll take what happened last year over strikeouts any day," said Kolb, who keeps his infielders busy with his heavy dose of sinkers.

Kolb won't have the luxury of turning toward Maddux for advice this year, but Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone has had some success in his field and Smoltz also owns a wealth of information concerning the closer's role. At least, that should be the case with a man who amassed 154 saves over the past three seasons.

"With [Smoltz] doing what he's done over his career, especially in the past three years, he's probably going to be one of my biggest advantages on this team," Kolb said. "In Spring Training, I'm probably going to be walking around in his back pocket for a while. I'd be dumb not to take advantage of the knowledge he has."

Smoltz has no trouble helping the man whose acquisition allowed him to move back to his preferred role in the starting rotation.

"What I think I can help him with ... is help him feel he doesn't have the toughest job in the world," Smoltz said. "It's easy to say just do what you did before you came here and a lot harder to actually do it."

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