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Over his first nine seasons in Major League Baseball, no moment seemed too big for Craig Kimbrel.
The flame-throwing closer dominated in stints with the Atlanta Braves, San Diego Padres and Boston Red Sox, racking up 333 saves, 868 strikeouts and seven All-Star appearances.
It’s been a different story in 2019.
The now 31-year-old veteran hasn’t just looked human on the hill. He’s looked overwhelmed. As if there were no answers as to why his dominance has disappeared after signing a three-year, $43 million contract with the Chicago Cubs back in May.
Kimbrel’s last nightmare outing
Kimbrel’s struggles were on full display again on Saturday, and the results couldn’t have been worse for Chicago. Tasked with protecting a one-run, ninth-inning lead in a game the Cubs absolutely had to win against the St. Louis Cardinals, Kimbrel served up game-tying and go-ahead home runs before the announcers were finished reading his stats.
Two pitches. Two home runs. The Cardinals grabbed a 9-8 lead. And the Cubs fell short again, potentially driving a dagger through their playoff chances.
It was the same story for Kimbrel in his previous outing.
After returning from a two-week absence brought on by knee discomfort, Kimbrel gave up a game-winning home run to the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter in Thursday’s 5-4, 10-inning loss.
It was the same story many times before that one. Kimbrel hasn’t been able to get the key outs or keep the baseball in the ballpark. After not allowing more than seven home runs in any previous season, he’s already allowed nine this season. In less than 20 innings.
Kimbrel’s ERA is actually 6.53. The blown save was his third in 16 opportunities. The loss his fourth in just 23 appearances.
He’s been anything but the lockdown closer the Cubs hoped they were getting.
Uncertain offseason behind Kimbrel’s struggles?
Like top starting pitching free agent Dallas Keuchel, Kimbrel went unsigned during the offseason despite playing a key role in the Red Sox World Series championship last season. Kimbrel’s reported $100 million asking price was too hefty for even the richest and most desperate of teams to consider investing. When the price lowered in May, the Cubs thought they’d gotten a bargain to help fill the ninth-inning void in their struggling bullpen.
What they’ve gotten so far is a shell of the pitcher who was arguably the best at his job over the last decade.
Maybe the offseason of uncertainty is a contributing factor. Maybe not having a real spring training has played a role. Kimbrel spent most of June in the minor leagues building up strength, but it’s a different ballgame starting then as opposed to February. Perhaps there’s more to the knee issue he missed time with. Though Kimbrel attempted to dismiss the latter following Saturday’s outing.
“I was pumped out there. I was excited. I felt like I had good stuff. And then right there off the bat, two home runs. Frustrating,” Kimbrel said Saturday.
“I feel great right now. My last two outings, I felt great. I just didn’t get the results I wanted, the results I need to have to do my job. Moving forward, I have a good feeling I will.”
“Craig’s a Hall of Fame closer,” teammate Anthony Rizzo said in support of Kimbrel. “He’s got a track record for a reason. He puts in the work. We all see it. He’s an amazing guy in the clubhouse. We have his back. It’s tough. I know he feels bad, but he’s a competitor and he’s a champion and he’ll bounce back.”
The positive reinforcement is all well and good. But something is off. There’s no question about that. It’s too late for the Cubs to fix it this season, but with two years left on their deal it’s something they’ll need to figure out this winter. Otherwise their big bargain will turn into an even bigger regret.
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