Bird of prey or prey itself?

One of America’s most famous airport architectures was the TWA international terminal at New York’s Kennedy Airport. Designed by architectural legend Eero Saarinen, the terminal—eventually occupied by JetBlue as part of its terminal complex, but converted since May 2018 into the TWA Hotel—depicted the cleverly stylized image of an eagle’s majestic landing.

When you see Craig Kimbrel on the mound in a baseball game, he assumes a set position taking his catcher’s signs that causes him to perform the single most near-perfect depiction of Saarinen’s masterpiece any human being can perform. Arms bent and elbows up, chest down, the pitcher as bird of prey about to land in or atop the target’s head.

2019-06-26 KimbrelTWA
Craig Kimbrel–will the Cubs have the bird of prey he depicts a la Saarinen or the prey itself?

From all appearances, it looks as though Kimbrel will come up to the Cubs either Thursday or Friday, after pitching at their Iowa (AAA) affiliate since 16 June to finish rounding himself into game shape. The question before the house is which version of the 31-year-old righthander the Cubs will get.

Will they get the no-questions-asked shutdown reliever of 2010-2015 and 2017? Will they get the one whose 2016 looked like a single comparatively down season against that body of work? Will they get the 2018 version whose ERA as of that 23 July was 1.90 but swelled to a 2.74 by season’s end?

Or will they get the Kimbrel whose postseason helped inspire Worcester Telegram-Gazette writer Bill Ballou to resist submitting his Hall of Fame ballot—rather than send one without a vote for Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera (ultimately, he sent it anyway with a vote for The Mariano)—because Kimbrel exposed the worthlessness of the save as now defined, since when he pitched “Boston’s victories felt like defeats”?

Beneath the surface of six saves, Kimbrel allowed nineteen baserunners, posted a ghastly 6.18 ERA, and put the Red Sox on so high a tension wire that they didn’t dare think of him when they had the chance to put the World Series away once and for all.

Kimbrel’s misfortune was to enter free agency after the World Series rings the Red Sox reached almost in spite of him. With the memory of his meltdowns still too fresh despite the Red Sox getting to the Promised Land for the fourth time since the turn of this century. With the Red Sox either in Fenway Park or on the road that postseason needing to keep mobile crash cart units standing by.

Against the Yankees in Game One of the division series, Kimbrel suffered only what you might expect to suffer when the Yankees need a big blast, Aaron Judge leading off the top of the ninth with a launch into the right field bullpens, before striking out the side post haste.

He didn’t appear in the Yankees’ Game Two win or, back in Fenway Park, in the Red Sox’s 16-1 Game Three bludgeoning of the Empire Emeritus, but in Game Four the crash carts went from yellow to red alert. Kimbrel went out for the top of the ninth with a 4-1 lead to protect. That’s the last simple thing you can say about it.

He walked Judge to open and surrendered a single to Didi Gregorius almost immediately to follow. He struck out Giancarlo Stanton but walked Luke Voit to load the bases. He plunked pinch hitter Neil Walker on the first pitch to send Judge strolling home and keep the ducks on the pond. He may have been fortunate that Gary Sanchez hit nothing worse than a sacrifice fly, pulling the Yankees to within a run, and that Gleyber Torres grounded out to end it before the paddles had to be charged.

Against the Astros in the American League Championship Series, Kimbrel wasn’t a Game One thought when the Astros took a one-run lead to the top of the ninth and it fell to Brandon Workman to let the Astros put the game out of reach, thanks to a leadoff homer by Josh Reddick and a three-run bomb by Yuli Gurriel.

But Cardiac Craig came out to play in Game Two. He was asked to nail down a 7-4 Red Sox lead, and he ran Red Sox Nation’s temperatures into the life-threatening zone yet again.

He got two swift outs to open, getting Evan Gattis to pop out behind second base and striking out Reddick swinging. Then 2017 World Series MVP George Springer shot one through the hole at shortstop that ended up a double. With Jose Altuve at the plate Kimbrel wild-pitched Springer to third, before Altuve lofted what turned out a high single down the line and toward the Monster to score Springer. Alex Bregman flied out to end it.

The collective sigh of relief had enough thrust to qualify as a potential hurricane.

The Red Sox didn’t need Kimbrel to nail down an 8-2 Game Three win in Houston, but Kimbrel should buy Andrew Benintendi’s steak dinners for five years at least after Game Four. This time, Red Sox skipper Alex Cora asked Kimbrel for two innings. That was almost like asking a suicide bomber to get away with two attacks.

Cardiac Craig opened the eighth with: a single to right that turned into an out when Tony Kemp tried and failed to stretch it into a double; another plunk (Bregman); a double to right (Springer); and, a run-scoring ground out to the hole adjacent to third. (Altuve.) Then he shook off a steal of third to strike Marwin Gonzalez out swinging.

And that was just the overture to the ninth. When Gurriel popped out over the line behind first. When Reddick and Carlos Correa walked back-to-back. When Reddick took third on Brian McCann’s fly to right. When Kemp walked to set up the ducks on the pond. When Bregman sent a line drive to the deeper reach of the left field corner that might have tied the ALCS at two each if Benintendi hadn’t scampered in like a puppy spotting a toy in the short distance and taken the dive that resulted in the catch of the season, if not the decade, saving both Kimbrel’s and the Red Sox’s hides.

Game Five, in which Red Sox starter David Price re-discovered his changeup and pitched himself six scoreless, masterful innings while his mates found Justin Verlander’s vulnerabilities just often enough, saw Kimbrel on the mound yet again in the ninth. Call it defiance of the Red Sox gods if you must. But Cardiac Craig let them off easy this time, with only a one-out walk, two strikeouts, and the ALCS-winning fly out, almost appropriately, to Benintendi in left.

Those may not have been your grandfather’s Red Sox of outrageous misfortune. But the box scores alone say Kimbrel saved four in those first two sets while leaving you entirely on your own to remember or revisit the gory details behind the saves. Be still, your hearts and stomachs.

In the first two World Series Games against the Dodgers, he was the classic, not the cardiac Kimbrel, striking out two of three hitters in the former and, in the latter, retiring the side in order on a fly out and back-to-back ground outs. Then came Game Three—which ended up going to the bottom of the eighteenth before his Game One strikeout victim Max Muncy ended the marathon with a blast into the left center field bleachers.

Kimbrel shook off a walk to end the bottom of the eighth with a foul pop out behind the plate before getting two outs on a pop and a grounder to open the ninth, then shaking off a ground-rule double before ending the ninth with an infield pop. It may not have been enough to ring an alarm, but it wasn’t exactly calm and peaceful, either.

And in Game Four, brought in for the ninth despite a five-run Red Sox lead, Cardiac Craig came home to roost yet again. He opened with a walk to Brian Dozier before Enrique Hernandez hit a 1-1 service not far from where Muncy’s Game Three finisher landed. He got Muncy to ground out before Justin Turner singled on a dying liner to short left field, but Manny Machado grounded out and Cody Bellinger flied out to end the game before the Red Sox needed to call in the crash carts.

If the Red Sox let Kimbrel get anywhere near Game Five with the chance to slip on the rings, they would have been tried by jury for attempted mass murder. They turned instead to Chris Sale, normally a starting pitcher, to finish the Dodgers off. And Sale gave the Red Sox what they once thought Kimbrel was guaranteed to deliver, striking out the side for game, set, and their fourth return to the Promised Land in the new century.

Kimbrel still thought he had a decent chance at making himself baseball’s first $100 million reliever regardless. Baseball apparently thought through its none-too-discreet laughter that someone spiked his Series-celebratory champagne with one or another controlled substance.

It took him seven months and the June draft, after which any new employer wouldn’t have to surrender anything but his salary to sign him, before the Cubs did just that, for three years and a measly $45 million. He won’t exactly be heading for the welfare office any time soon.

It’s not that the Cubs don’t need a late-game reliever with Kimbrel’s overall flight jacket. Since losing Brandon Morrow after he looked to be posting a magnificent 2018, the Cubs’ bullpen this season has been an inconsistent presence. Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, and Kyle Ryan have overall numbers that won’t make you reach for the rye bottle, but Cishek and Pedro Strop have received most of the game-finishing assignments, and Strop hasn’t been the same pitcher he’d been in the recent past, and they’re both suited better for setup duties.

The good news is that the Cubs right now are at the top of the National League Central heap. The bad news is that they’re there by a thread, a game ahead of the Brewers who still don’t know the meaning of the word “quit.” The worse news is that they’re 5-7 in twelve games including splitting a pair with the Braves in a four-game set.

When Kimbrel joins the Cubs, either for the set final with the Braves at Wrigley Field Thursday or against the Reds in Great American Ballpark to start a weekend series Friday, the Cubs can be forgiven if they ask which Kimbrel comes out to play.

Will it be the Kimbrel who resembles a stylized eagle landing after a majestic flight and pitched like one for a long enough time? Or will it be the bird of prey who becomes the prey itself? The Cubs’ season may turn considerably on the answer.

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