It was overshadowed by an epic pitcher’s duel between Kris Medlen and Cliff Lee, and Chris Johnson’s game-winning homer in the eighth inning, but Craig Kimbrel did something Friday that only 10 other pitchers have done.
The Braves’ closer recorded his majors-leading 50th save, the second Braves pitcher to reach that standard and the first National League pitcher to do it since the Dodgers’ Eric Gagne converted 55 saves and won the Cy Young Award in 2003.
“Obviously it means I’ve had a lot of opportunities this year,” Kimbrel said with typical modesty.
Pressed further, he acknowledged the significance of 50 saves, something only John Smoltz — 55 in 2002 — had achieved among Braves.
“It definitely means a lot,” said Kimbrel, who had 46 saves in 2011 and 42 in 2012 in his first two full seasons, sharing the NL lead both years. “It’s not something that comes around every year. Even if you do have a good pitching year, you might not get that many opportunities. So it’s definitely something special.”
Kimbrel converted 50 of 54 saves before Saturday and led National League relievers with a 1.23 ERA, including a 0.78 ERA in 35 home appearances. He converted a franchise-record 37 consecutive saves from May 9 through Sept. 14.
Kimbrel’s save Friday was his 139th in 154 career opportunities, a 90.3-percent conversion rate that ranked third in history behind Gagne (91.7) and Smoltz (91.1) among pitchers with at least 100 save opportunities.
A year ago, he finished fifth in the Cy Young balloting after posting a 1.01 ERA and totaling 116 strikeouts and only 14 walks in 62 2/3 innings, becoming the first pitcher to strike out at least 50 percent of the batters he faced in a full season.
He had 98 strikeouts and 20 walks in 66 innings before Saturday, and a 0.879 WHIP (walks-plus-hits per inning pitched) compared with his microscopic 0.654 WHIP in 2012.
Entering Saturday, Braves relievers led the majors in ERA (2.44), opponents’ OPS (.604) and fewest homers allowed (28).
“You talk about how good our bullpen is,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “If you can work from back (from the ninth inning) forward, it makes it a lot easier. Because you know that ninth inning is in pretty good shape, you can do some stuff.”
Kimbrel’s .165 opponents’ average dropped to .132 with runners on, and .085 (4-for-47) with runners in scoring position.
“He doesn’t panic,” Gonzalez said.
“You really can’t — if you panic, you’ve lost,” Kimbrel said. “You can go out there and pitch a certain way with nobody on and be successful, but as soon as you get guys on, you can’t have any mistakes.”
McCann progressing: Two days after Brian McCann strained the adductor muscle near his right groin, the condition had improved significantly, Gonzalez said Saturday.
Gonzalez wouldn’t rule out McCann getting a couple of at-bats in Sunday’s regular-season finale. McCann said after the injury that it wasn’t severe and that he would be ready to play in the division series opener Thursday, if not sooner.
McCann felt soreness while warming up pitcher David Hale before Thursday’s game and left after the first inning. Gerald Laird caught the rest of that game and Saturday against the Phillies. Evan Gattis caught Friday’s game, when Kris Medlen allowed only two hits in eight innings of a 1-0 win against the Phillies.
Walden update: Reliever Jordan Walden pitched Saturday and is scheduled to throw an inning Sunday, and Gonzalez said the right-hander would likely throw another inning Tuesday in the Florida instructional league or in simulated-game conditions in Atlanta.
Walden got the first two outs of the seventh inning Saturday, but gave up two hits and was charged with two runs (one earned), a wild pitch and a throwing error.
Walden felt good during a Friday bullpen session, but the Braves want to see him throw twice against hitters to show he’s healthy before deciding whether to put him on the division-series roster.
Walden has been slowed since mid-August, first by groin injuries and recently a recurrence of shoulder soreness. He has pitched just seven times since Aug. 7 and has an 8.59 ERA and .276 opponents’ average in 7 1/3 innings in those games, allowing eight hits including three homers.
Before the injuries, he posted a 1.04 ERA and .135 opponents’ average in 28 appearances beginning May 29, with 30 strikeouts, nine walks and one homer allowed in 26 innings.
Etc.: Outfielder Reed Johnson felt good Saturday, a day after making his first start in two months following a case of Achilles tendinitis. The Braves are expected to have him on their playoff roster as a backup and pinch-hit specialist. … Braves hitters ranked third, fourth and fifth in the NL in strikeouts before Saturday, with Dan Uggla (franchise-record 170), Justin Upton (158) and B.J. Upton (151).