Kimbrel keeps the crash carts at bay—so far

Kimbrel still resembles the old TWA terminal at JFK Airport when he leans to take his signs—but so far he doesn’t resemble the guy who used to force the crash carts on immediate standby.

Ordinarily, a week-old season wouldn’t (shouldn’t) have you either pushing panic buttons or awarding pennants before they’re actually won. Enough fans and social media crawlers hoist up the earliest numbers as though they’re final revelation or final condemnation.

But there’s a spectre haunting no more, for three games worth of the new season, anyway. Craig Kimbrel—the closer whose “saves” too often involved tempting, not being tempted by the devil—is not a spectre any more.

So far. Any temptation the Cubs have had to keep the crash carts on double-secret red alert whenever they’ve had to reach for him is quelled.

For now.

Three assignments. Three innings pitched. Nine batters faced. No hits surrendered. Six strikeouts; a two-per-inning average. He actually punched out the side in his first assignment (against the Pirates), landed two punchouts in his second (also against the Pirates), and landed one in his third (against the Brewers).

The Cubs won Kimbrel’s first two gigs and lost the third through no fault of his own: he worked a spotless ninth, but Brandon Workman came on to pitch the tenth and surrendered a three-run homer for which the Cubs had only an RBI single to answer in the bottom for the loss.

Kimbrel has only one save to his credit for his early effort, simply because in his first gig against the Pirates the Cubs handed him a four-run lead to protect. Kimbrel not only treated his assignment as though the entire fate of the Cubs rested on it, he struck out the side with every batter facing him looking at strike three.

For a moment or two you could have sworn you’d heard assorted Pirates muttering to themselves that they couldn’t reconcile this to the guy who’d become infamous a couple of postseasons ago for running up cardiac surgeons’ bills.

In the second Pirate gig, well, yes, these are still the Pirates, but the Cubs handed him a mere one-run lead to protect. The kind of narrow lead with which Kimbrel once raised temperatures if not blood pressures the moment he arrived on the mound.

He struck Michael Perez out swinging on 2-2. He caught Anthony Alford looking at a full-count third strike. He got Wilmer Difo to line out to shortstop on 0-2 for the side and the game.

“It’s too early to definitively say that Kimbrel is back to his old self after struggling in 2019 and 2020,” says RotoWire, “but it’s certainly encouraging to see him get off to a good start.” They only left out 2018’s postseason. The one which “struggling” didn’t even begin to describe.

When Worcester Telegram writer Bill Ballou first threatened not to vote for Mariano Rivera for the Hall of Fame (under protest ferocious enough he changed his mind), his initial defense included Kimbrel’s incendiary 2018 postseason performances: “When he pitched,” Ballou wrote, “Boston’s victories felt like defeats. In 10-2/3 innings he had an ERA of 5.90, and permitted nineteen baserunners. He was also six for six converting saves — a perfect record.”

That was then, when the Red Sox managed to win the World Series decisively enough, if now controversially enough. This is now: So far this season, Kimbrel resembles the kid howitzer who had a 1.43 ERA, a 1.52 fielding-independent pitching rate, a 14.8 strikeouts-per-nine rate, and a 266 ERA+ in his first four seasons, with the Braves.

“His presence on the mound, throwing strikes, being really aggressive with the heater — that’s Craig Kimbrel,” says Cub center fielder Ian Happ. The knuckle curve he works in isn’t exactly flat or hesitant so far, either.

“My first two appearances have been good,” Kimbrel said after his second dispatch of the Pirates. “I’ve successfully hit my spots and executed pitches how I wanted to. The life and movement on my pitches have definitely been there and with that, I’ve had some success.”

He also said having a normal spring training—as opposed to last year’s pan-damn-ically enforced quick “summer camp” and, more markedly, his midseason 2019 signing that compelled him to try rushing into form, doing him and the Cubs few favours—mattered this time around. It enabled him to iron out the knots without putting himself on the rack.

“I had an opportunity to get into games and work on things without the runs mattering,” he said, “and being more concerned on getting out there and executing what I was trying to do gameplan-wise each and every time instead of worrying about how many runs are getting across the plate. That was definitely helpful. As we saw at the start of spring training, [I] gave up some runs, gave up hits and as we went, I was able to throw more strikes and miss more bats. It was a good six weeks and we’ve gotten off to a pretty good start so far.”

That’s far, far, far away from the look he left after Game Four of the Red Sox’s 2018 division series triumph over the Yankees in four games. When he walked Aaron Judge on four pitches to open that ninth, surrendered a base hit (Didi Gregorius), struck Giancarlo Stanton out, but walked the bases loaded (Luke Voit) and hit Neil Walker with the first pitch before surrendering a sacrifice fly (Gary Sanchez) that shrunk the Red Sox lead to one run.

When Kimbrel got Gleyber Torres to ground out for game and set, Red Sox Nation didn’t know whether to thank him for the escape or kill him for dangling a few too many lamb chops in front of the Yankee wolves.

He “saved” Games Two and Four of that American League Championship Series by tempting the Astro wolves a little too much—well, since-departed (to the Royals) left fielder Andrew Benintendi really saved Game Four with that electrifying diving catch, on Alex Bregman’s sinking liner that would have crawled to the back of the yard for possibly three runs and an Astro win otherwise. And that was after Kimbrel walked the bases loaded again.

That was then; this is now. For now. Whether it proves too good to last no crystal ball can show with certainty. But for the bearded righthander who still resembles the old TWA terminal at Kennedy when he leans in to take his signs, it’s a season start he hasn’t experienced in too long. The Cubs won’t complain. Yet. It’s tricky and pricey keeping the crash carts on double-secret red alert.

Headhunters ball

Of course our guy didn’t throw at your guy’s attic on purpose. And of course we’ll take that polar beach club off your hands for twice the market value!

A little Saturday rough stuff between the Chicago Cubs and the Cincinnati Reds may or may not be surprising. But is it all that surprising that Angel Hernandez’s umpiring crew sent it near nuclear? Not Hernandez himself, for a change, but still.

The Cubs and the Reds played a doubleheader in Great American Ballpark. Thanks to his performance in the Cubs’ first-game win (3-0), Anthony Rizzo wasn’t exactly the Reds’ favourite person on the day. Neither was Cubs starting pitcher Yu Darvish, who was so effective he could (and did) drop his glove while delivering and still throw a strike.

First, Rizzo wrestled Reds starter Trevor Bauer to a ninth pitch and drilled it down the right field line and out of sight in the top of the third. Then, in the top of the sixth, Rizzo made shorter work of Bauer by hitting a fourth-pitch 1-2 service deeper into the right field seats.

But in the top of the nightcap’s fourth, rookie Cincinnati relief pitcher Tejay Antone greeted Rizzo leading off with a pitch straight over Rizzo’s head. Rookie though he may be, Antone had all the right moves at the ready, looking at his pitching hand immediately as he turned to his right.

Of course the ball just slipped away off course against the guy who took the Reds deep twice in the first game. And of course you can have that Antarctican beach club for twice the market value. Rizzo’s reputation for plate crowding doesn’t fly here, either. If you’re going to push a batter back off the plate, you’re going to throw inside and tight, not upstairs above the attic.

“We’ve played against the Reds a long time and they do like to move my feet,” Rizzo told reporters after Cubs relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel wild-pitched the winning Reds run home in the bottom of the seventh.

It’s just part of their reports–it’s been for years. I don’t think any pitcher would purposefully throw at someone’s head. I give the benefit of the doubt to every pitcher, especially Antone. He’s a rookie. He’s been throwing really well. The pitch inside was definitely for a purpose. It’s just, it’s at the head and that’s scary stuff.

No sale. Both dugouts barked. Hernandez’s ump crew confabbed as Antone stepped into his errant-hand routine around the mound. Home plate umpire Nic Lentz handed warnings to both sides. Cubs manager David Ross, who wouldn’t have paid a wooden nickel for the pitch-slipping plea, was distinctly unamused.

Ross came out of his dugout at first, returned, then came back out after Lentz handed the warnings down. “I thought our dugout got pretty animated and the umpires stepped in and issued warnings, which I didn’t understand,” Grandpa Rossy told reporters later. “We hadn’t done anything from our perspective. A young man tried to take things into his own hands and send a message, and then it kind of escaped from there.”

With the Cubs dugout still bristling over Antone’s attic pitch to Rizzo, not to mention Antone still bristling quietly over having exchanged a few “grunts” with the Cubs previously, Ross and his pitching/catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello were ejected. It’s the first ejection in Ross’s managerial career. Welcome to Angel’s Hell, Gramps. You’re not supposed to say anything but “three bags full, sir” to the crew of the legend in his own mind.

Then the Reds got a taste of both theirs and Hernandez’s own medicine in the bottom of the fourth. Cubs reliever Adbert Adzolay zipped Reds center fielder Shogo Akiyama up, in, and tight. You’d have had to be a U.S. postmaster general not to know that Adzolay wanted to send the Reds a little return message about going upstairs against the guy who took you downtown twice in the first game.

That prompted veteran Reds leader and designated hitter for the game Joey Votto to bark at the Cubs, Kyle Schwarber in particular. Cincinnati skipper David Bell returned to the field for another conversation with the umps, during which Rizzo hollered at him from first base, which lured Votto and Reds outfielder Jesse Winker out to have it out with Rizzo.

First base umpire Dan Bellino tried and failed to convince Votto and Winker to knock it the hell off, then he invited both to kindly remove themselves from the game, at which point—pandemic protocols be damned—both benches and bullpens emptied to the field, although nobody even thought about throwing a punch.

“I went over to get an explanation for what happened,” Bell told reporters afterward. “And then I believe Anthony Rizzo started walking towards me and yelling at me,” Bell said. “I don’t know what he was saying, it didn’t really matter to me. And at that point, a couple of our players jumped over the railing and the umpire just started throwing everybody out of the game. Not everybody, but Jesse Winker, Joey Votto and myself.”

“Having each other’s backs and the Reds and all their guys and David Bell are going to have each other’s backs and we’re going to have our backs,” said Rizzo, who speaks fondly of Bell otherwise from Bell’s days as a Cubs infield coach. “That’s what happens when you’re competing anytime through baseball, but especially this year when it’s all heightened and you can hear every little thing.”

The Twitterverse erupted with a round of brickbats against Hernandez as the leader of the crew, but in absolute fairness this was one time when Hernandez himself didn’t jump the first bullet train to make himself the object of everyone’s attention. That’s about as far as absolute fairness should go, thanks to a time-honoured precept that when you lead you take responsibility for what your subordinates do, for better or worse.

Including making the headhunters captured by the game the story of the day, instead of Darvish’s virtuosity on the mound in the first game. Or even the hapless and once-formidable Kimbrel’s ninth-inning nightcap disaster, when he was brought in to try saving a 5-4 Cubs lead and should-have-been win. Oops.

He walked Reds catcher Curt Casali on 3-1 to open the bottom of the ninth. He struck Votto’s successor Mark Payton out, but he wild-pitched Casali’s pinch runner Freddy Galvis to second before walking Nicholas Castellanos. Winker’s successor Aristedes Aquino singled Galvis home, then Kimbrel wild-pitched Castellanos and Aquino to third and second, respectively, before walking Eugenio Suarez.

The good news: Cardiac Kimbrel struck Mike Moustakas and Jose Garcia swinging, back to back, Garcia especially on one of the filthiest curve balls Kimbrel’s thrown in recent times. The bad news: That strikeout pitch escaped not just Garcia’s bat but one and all around and behind the plate, enabling Castellanos to score the Reds’ winning run.

Too-vivid reminders of how Kimbrel, formerly one of the most automatic closers in the Show, kept the crash carts on red alert during the 2018 Boston Red Sox’s postseason run even when credited with saves. The poor man threw four first-pitch strikes out of his six batters but only three of his eleven total strikes were called and his earned run average now matched a ten-dollar bill.

“We’re behind him every single day,” Rizzo said of Kimbrel. “Every time he comes to the mound, we’re behind him and have full confidence in him. He’s Craig Kimbrel. He has his resume for a reason.” That door swings both ways, unfortunately.

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.