published Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

Kimbrel joins All-Star cast

ATLANTA — Rookies are a big reason the Atlanta Braves take the National League’s second-best record and the fourth-best mark in the major leagues into the All-Star break.

Craig Kimbrel, who leads the majors with 28 saves, made the NL All-Star team as a replacement pick, and the hard-throwing right-hander isn’t the only rookie playing a major role in the Braves’ attempt to catch Philadelphia in the NL East.

First baseman Freddie Freeman, hitting .274 with 13 home runs, is emerging as a dangerous power hitter in the middle of the lineup. He had four homers in a four-game series with Colorado last week.

Another rookie, right-handed starting pitcher Brandon Beachy, has a solid 3.21 earned run average at the bottom of a strong rotation.

“It’s fun to watch the young guys go out and play with confidence,” said Braves third baseman Chipper Jones.

Kimbrel, Freeman, Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa and Mets starting pitcher Dillon Gee are leading candidates for NL Rookie of the Year.

The Braves also lean on second-year players Jason Heyward, who was voted to start in last year’s All-Star game, and Jonny Venters, a reliever who made this year’s NL team.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez noted with amazement last week that Heyward, in his second season, and Freeman are only 21. Kimbrel is 23.

“It’s fun to see those guys have success in this environment,” Gonzalez said.

Freeman could give the Braves the fixture at first base the team has lacked while having to shop for such veterans as Adam LaRoche, Mark Teixeira, Andres Galarraga and Fred McGriff the last 20 years.

Jones, who has watched the revolving door at first base since his 1994 rookie season, believes Freeman is a rising star.

“He walks up there and he thinks every at-bat he’s going to hit the ball hard somewhere,” Jones said. “He gets the right pitch, he’s going to take it deep. There’s no better feeling as an offensive player than to walk up to the plate knowing you’re going to do damage.”

Jones said Freeman, also a strong defensive player, drives the ball like Teixeira.

“He gets carry on balls like a Mark Teixeira,” Jones said. “Off the bat, they just keep going and going and going and going.”

The Braves (54-38) are 3 1/2 games behind Philadelphia after losing two of three games to the Phillies this past weekend. The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees are the only other teams in baseball with better records.

“I think we’re pleased where we are,” said Braves All-Star starting catcher Brian McCann.

McCann said the Braves’ confidence wasn’t hurt by the series at Philadelphia.

“They haven’t dominated us,” McCann said. “We know we can play with them. They’re a great team and so are we.”

Atlanta will be without Jones but expects to have Martin Prado back in the lineup when it begins a home series against Washington on Friday. Jones is expected to miss two to three weeks following arthroscopic surgery Saturday to repair a medial meniscus tear in his right knee.

The surgery will prevent Jones from playing in the All-Star game.

Prado, who began the season as the starting left fielder, has missed a month with a staph infection in his right calf. The versatile Prado, who started last year’s All-Star team at second base, will fill in for Jones at third base before making his return to the outfield.

Prado is expected to hit near the top of the lineup. Freeman and Heyward can help McCann fill the void left by Jones in the middle of the batting order.

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