For Uptons, Kimbrel, there's no place like home
ATLANTA -- Two Uptons and one Kimbrel returned to Atlanta on Monday. These all turned out to be happy returns.
Justin Upton, Melvin Upton Jr. and Craig Kimbrel were Braves, but are now employees of the San Diego Padres thanks to a pair of trades. They all figured prominently in a 5-3, 11-inning victory over Atlanta at Turner Field in the first game of a four-game series.
Upton had no hits, but he did have an RBI groundout. His biggest contribution came in the 11th when he led off with a walk, stole second and scored what turned out to be the game-winning run on a double by Matt Kemp.
Kimbrel, the National League's leading closer over his four-plus seasons with the Braves, recorded his 200th save, becoming the youngest pitcher to reach that mark. He retired three straight (with two groundouts and a strikeout) in the bottom of the 11th to preserve the victory.
Upton Jr., known as B.J. Upton during his time in Georgia, had been an integral part of some highly successful Tampa Bay Rays teams. But he struggled mightily with the Braves, hitting .198/.279/.314 over the past two seasons.
Upton Jr. was coming off the disabled list, and Padres manager Bud Black wisely decided that Upton Jr. shouldn't start out his season by facing Shelby Miller, the de facto ace of Atlanta's staff. When Upton Jr. entered the game as a pinch-runner in the ninth inning, he was persistently and loudly booed by the Turner Field audience of 21,458.
But Upton Jr. won this round. A throwing error on Braves closer Jason Grilli on an attempted pickoff allowed him to move from second to third. Upton Jr. subsequently scored on a sacrifice fly. The crowd booed again, but Upton Jr.'s run tied the game, 3-3.
When Justin Upton came to the plate in the first inning, the Turner Field crowd gave him a pleasant, respectful reception. Upton, in his two years here, hit 56 home runs, and last season drove in a career-high 102 runs.
One way or the other, the three ex-Braves, in their first trip back to Atlanta as Padres, had all made major contributions to a very nice San Diego victory.
"I know this," Black said. "When you change teams, there's a little different feeling that first time back when you're facing your ex-teammates. Not that you're out to prove anybody wrong or anything like that. But it's a weird, different feeling. And you want to play well."
The fans who remained in the 11th inning cheered for Kimbrel upon his entrance, even though he was about to lock down a Braves defeat.
"The fans were nice, they cheered for me," Kimbrel said with a smile. "There were a lot of fans coming down to the bullpen saying they were happy for me. The fans were great. It was a little quiet out there; playing extra-inning games, a lot of people have school or work tomorrow."
Kimbrel ought to be a big favorite in Atlanta. He led the NL in saves in each of the past four seasons, totaling 185 saves in 204 opportunities. Pitching for the Braves, Kimbrel struck out 1.65 batters per inning. This season, he has 14 saves in 15 save opportunities for the Padres.
"I haven't been 100 percent sharp this year, but it hasn't hurt the team," Kimbrel said. "We're still winning games. That's what matters."
And Monday night, Kimbrel was 100 percent sharp.
And for Kimbrel, who grew up in Alabama, this is a true baseball homecoming.
"Atlanta gave me the opportunity to pitch in the big leagues," Kimbrel said. "Every kid dreams of growing up and playing in the Major Leagues, and for me it was here in Atlanta, because I grew up a Braves fan."
Beyond this game, there is going to be considerable speculation about what role Upton Jr. will have with the Padres and how effective he will be.
Upton was asked what his older brother could bring to Padres, and he didn't hesitate, saying: "He can bring some speed, some defensive versatility to our lineup. He can flash some power. It'll be a good addition for us."
Upton Jr. had his outlook brightened on the day before the 2015 regular season opened. That was the day that he and Kimbrel were traded to San Diego. Did Upton Jr. welcome the change of scenery?
"Yeah, definitely," he said. "I got the opportunity to be back with my brother. I got the opportunity to play for a great manager and a coaching staff; you know, they all played, they know what this game's about, they've been through it. I'm looking forward to it."
Upton Jr.'s struggles in Atlanta are in the past. He would like to return to a better past, the one when he was a much better player, for Tampa Bay.
"When you're in it, you try to work your way out of it," Upton Jr. said of his two-season slump. "Unfortunately, I couldn't get back to square one. That's all over with, there's nothing I can do about it now, just try to be the ballplayer that I've been in the past."
"He's had a lot of success in the Majors," Black said. "You look back at some of those numbers that he produced in Tampa. I think at 30 years old, those numbers can still be in there for him.
"I'm still getting to know this fellow, on the mental side, but on the physical side, there's a lot to like. I think he's got a lot of years left. I'm looking forward to watching him play."
On this night, watching the two Uptons and the one Kimbrel come through in the clutch was a very enjoyable experience for the Padres.