LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- When Braves right-hander Craig Kimbrel left camp to pitch for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, manager Fredi Gonzalez's main concern was Kimbrel making it back without any injuries.
Kimbrel finished his WBC stint with no problems and returned to the Braves on Saturday. Now he looks for a strong finish this spring as he builds on a dominant season in 2012.
Kimbrel has allowed at least one run in his past three spring outings. Last season he went 16 consecutive appearances from May 5 to June 27 and 14 consecutive outings to end the season without allowing a run.
Kimbrel's rough spring outings, plus a loss in the WBC, may have caused a bit of concern with fans, but the Braves are shrugging them off.
"My assessment is it's January, February, March," Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell said. "I think when the season hits (he will be ready)." Before leaving for the WBC, Kimbrel said he was encouraged by a March 2 outing against the Astros. After a walk, a hit batsman, an RBI single allowed and another walk in the seventh inning, Kimbrel ended the inning with a pair of strikeouts.
Kimbrel said pitching in the WBC fit in seamlessly with his spring preparations, and he still feels good about his progress to this point.
"There's a few things I need to work on but, for the most part, I'm pretty ready to go," he said.
Kimbrel pitched Thursday and Friday for Team USA and will get a couple of days off. McDowell said the Braves usually follow that plan during the spring with their late-innings relievers, anyway, so Kimbrel is on schedule.
Kimbrel was the losing pitcher Thursday against the Dominican Republic when he allowed two runs in the ninth. Nelson Cruz (Rangers) doubled off Kimbrel, and Erick Aybar (Angels) and Jose Reyes (Blue Jays) followed with RBI singles in the 3-1 victory.
Kimbrel pitched a scoreless ninth inning with one hit allowed during a 4-3 loss to Puerto Rico on Friday that eliminated Team USA from the tournament.
"Pitching at that level of competition this early, sometimes guys are ready for it, sometimes they are not ready for it," McDowell said. "He was prepared, he was ready, and I thought he pitched well overall." This year is the third installment of the WBC, and many big-league players decided against participating. Kimbrel said he's "100 percent glad" he did it.
"The atmosphere, the fans, the willingness to win -- it was awesome," he said. "I think it's just going to be something that grows and grows as the years progress. I think it's going to be a bigger tournament and have a little bit more meaning to it." McCann on track: Braves catcher Brian McCann continued his progress from Oct. 16 surgery on his right shoulder with batting and throwing sessions Saturday. Gonzalez said McCann still is on track for his target return date of April 16. Opening Day is April 1.
"He's swinging the bat great," said Gonzalez, who threw to McCann's group in batting practice. "He threw the ball a little better today in his throwing session. The throwing is going to be the last thing to come, I think." Graham finishes Braves camp strong: Braves right-handed J.R. Graham was re-assigned to minor-league camp after pitching two scoreless innings against the Yankees on Saturday.
"He did a nice job mixing his pitches, which he hadn't done prior," Gonzalez said. "He's one of those guys who pinned his ear back and tried to throw it 100 every time." Graham didn't allow a run in nine innings pitched this spring with the Braves, recording five strikeouts with three walks and six hits.
Baseball America rates Graham, 23, as Atlanta's second-best prospect in 2013. He likely will start the season at Double-A Mississippi.
"He needs to get ready to pitch in his season," Gonzalez said. "They have got to start stretching him out, and as spring goes on we are running out of innings for these (young) guys." Maholm rolling: Braves lefty Paul Maholm allowed two hits with a walk and four strikeouts in six innings in Atlanta's 4-0 exhibition victory against New York's split squad Saturday. Maholm increased his scoreless streak to 14 2/3 innings since the Phillies scored five runs off him in 2 2/3 innings Feb. 28.
Maholm was 4-5 with 3.54 ERA in 11 starts for the Braves in 2012.
"Last year I started off slow and got it going, so hopefully I can kind of go for the whole 30-plus starts with it," he said.
Walden nears return: Braves right-hander Jordan Walden, out since Feb. 23 with a bulging disk in his back, threw 35 pitches of live batting practice Saturday. Gonzalez said Walden is scheduled for one more batting-practice session before he's cleared to pitch in a game.
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