ATLANTA — Craig Kimbrel had a feeling Friday would be a special night, so he invited about 30 to 40 family members and friends from Alabama to come watch him reach a rare milestone.
The hard-throwing closer became the eighth pitcher in Major League Baseball history to earn 400 saves as the Philadelphia Phillies beat the Atlanta Braves 6-4 to open a four-game series between the National League East Division rivals.
"I'm happy it was here in Atlanta," said Kimbrel, who began his MLB career with the Braves. "I am happy the majority of my family was here to see it. Getting to take it in and enjoy it with them is great."
Making his 730th career appearance, the 34-year-old right-hander worked a scoreless ninth inning to get his sixth save in as many chances this season. Of the seven previous relievers to reach 400 saves, only Mariano Rivera (697 games), Trevor Hoffman (706) and Kenley Jansen (778) hit the threshold in fewer than 800 appearances.
Kimbrel, the 2011 NL rookie of the year, played his first five seasons in Atlanta, was a four-time All-Star with the Braves and still holds the franchise record with 186 saves. This is his first season with Philadelphia. Over his past 15 games since April 16, Kimbrel has faced 54 batters and has 26 strikeouts in 14 innings, but he has struggled at times this year with a 5.68 ERA.
Kimbrel grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, about a three-hour drive from Atlanta, and it was with the Braves that he broke through as one of the game's most feared relievers. He's been named an MLB All-Star eight times in all, and he helped the Boston Red Sox win the 2018 World Series.
He said he never set out to break records or join exclusive lists, but his career has worked out pretty well.
"My goal is to show up and get ready to pitch in those opportunities as much as I can," Kimbrel said. "Always knowing I was closing games, I was hoping to get 35 to 40 a year doing my job, and that's about it. It's one year at a time, one save at a time."
Interestingly, Jansen — who was Atlanta's closer in 2022, his lone year with the Braves after spending his first dozen MLB seasons with the Dodgers — also got his 400th save against his former team when the Red Sox won 5-2 in Atlanta on May 10.
Philadelphia's Brandon Marsh hit a go-ahead two-run single in the sixth inning Friday.
Facing reliever Joe Jiménez (0-1) with the bases loaded, Marsh made it 4-3 with a single to left field that scored Nick Castellanos and J.T. Realmuto. The Phillies scored twice in the seventh off Lucas Luetge on Trea Turner's RBI double and Bryce Harper's sacrifice fly.
The Braves led 3-2 in the fifth when Michael Harris II snapped a 1-for-28 slump with a two-run homer. Beginning the game hitting .165, Harris drove an 88 mph splitter from starter Taijuan Walker (4-2) for an opposite-field shot to left that made it 3-2. It was the second home run for Harris, last season's NL rookie of the year.
"I had some things go on early in the season with injuries, and I guess that kind of affected some of my mechanics," Harris said. "I just had to bring that back once I was 100%. It's really tough. You've got to keep telling yourself to stay patient, just believe in yourself and play the game that you play."
The NL-leading Braves dropped to 31-20. Philadelphia, stuck in fourth place in the NL East after advancing to the World Series last year, is 24-27. The Phillies, who upset the Braves in an NL Division Series last fall, are seven games back of Atlanta in the division standings.
After failing to capitalize in the first two innings with a runner in scoring position, the Phillies took a 2-0 lead in the third when Bryson Stott and Turner walked and Castellanos tripled off the wall in right-center.
Atlanta trimmed the lead to 2-1 in the fourth. Travis d'Arnaud doubled, advanced to third on Marcell Ozuna's single and scored on Eddie Rosario's sacrifice fly.
Ozuna led off the second with a single and advanced to third on Rosario's double but was tagged out for a double play after getting caught in a rundown when first baseman Alec Bohm threw to third baseman Josh Harrison. Ozuna compensated for the mistake in the eighth, homering off Matt Strahm to cut the lead to 6-4. It was the 11th time he's gone deep this year. He finished 3-for-4 after beginning the night with a 1.167 on-base percentage this month, third in the majors.
Walker gave up 10 hits and three runs in 6 2/3 innings to win for the first time in four starts. He began the game 1-2 with a 5.14 ERA in seven career starts against Atlanta.
Jared Shuster, rated the Braves' top prospect by MLB.com, allowed three hits and three runs in 5 2/3 innings. It was his fifth career start.
For Kimbrel, the night was special because he got to celebrate with so many loved ones.
"They've been supporting me forever," he said. "A lot of them were saying, 'This feels weird celebrating here in Atlanta.' It brought back a lot of memories, hanging out with the same group of people in the tunnel after the game and catching up."
He wasn't even nervous coming out of the bullpen, and he closed the game by getting Ronald Acuña Jr. on a grounder to third with a runner on.
"No, I was pretty locked in," Kimbrel said. "I mean, I had a lot of chances to think about it. I've been sitting pretty close to this milestone for a while now, and I've just been able to throw the ball well lately. I was really just worried about getting the win tonight, and once the final out was made, I was able to relax."
Right-handers are the scheduled starters Saturday when Atlanta's Charlie Morton (5-4, 3.61 ERA) and Philadelphia's Zack Wheeler (3-4, 4.11) will be on the mound.