The modern game, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez is one to say, is played from the ninth inning forward.

From that end, it all starts and ends with Craig Kimbrel.

The anchor of the best bullpen in baseball -- one with the numbers to back it up -- Kimbrel's numbers are staggering. He's the only pitcher in history with at least 40 saves in his first three seasons and his 138 since 2011 are 28 more than anyone else in that span.

But it's the pieces around the All-Star closer that helped the Braves lead with majors with a 2.46 ERA last season, equaling the '03 Dodgers for the best since the 1990 A's (2.35), and it's group that amazingly, could be even better this year.

"Our expectations are high as if the season never ended," said right-hander Anthony Varvaro, who led he team with 49 innings in relief. "We have to just continue where we left off."

Where they left off was filling voids that, a year ago, would have seemed crippling. Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters were, along with Kimbrel, the backbone of Atlanta's 'pen for two seasons, combining to pitch 40.1 percent of the team's innings of relief.

Venters was shut down in the spring and would undergo Tommy John surgery and O'Flaherty's season ended the same way in May after just 18 innings pitched.

Still, the Braves remained dominant as Varvaro, Luis Avilan, Luis Ayala, David Carpenter, Scott Downs, Cory Gearrin, Jordan Walden and Alex Wood all played key roles.