How Cubs’ Craig Kimbrel reset GPS on road to Cooperstown

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Gordon Wittenmyer
·5 min read
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Kimbrel resets GPS, back on route to Cooperstown originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Anybody who forgot how long and how often the words “Hall of Fame closer” used to be attached to Craig Kimbrel’s name got a quick reminder if they tuned into the Cubs game Thursday in the bottom of the eighth inning in Pittsburgh.

His slider danced and dipped. His fastball touched 98 mph. And the hitters didn’t touch much of any of it as Kimbrel struck out two Pirates to get out of the bases-loaded jam he inherited, then added a 1-2-3 ninth for his 350th career save.

It was the first five-out save of his career, if not the hottest, highest-leverage, regular-season save of his career.

And it left anyone who watched it wondering just how much of that star power might yet be left in a career that already produced seven All-Star selections before he joined the Cubs in June 2019 after a stupid-long stretch without a job during one of those recent collusion-looking free agent markets.

“Let’s take a moment to appreciate the greatness of Craig Kimbrel and what he’s been able to do over the course of his career,” said teammate Jake Arrieta, the winning pitcher in Thursday’s 4-2 victory.

“He’s going to climb the ranks,” Arrieta added. “Especially with the stuff that he still has, he might end up being No. 1 at the end of the day.”

Kimbrel, who ranks 12th all-time in saves, is still 302 from catching Mariano Rivera (652) at the top of the list — 251 from catching Trevor Hoffman at No. 2 and 138 from catching former Cub Lee Smith at No. 3.

All three are Hall of Famers.

If one early April afternoon in Pittsburgh meant anything Thursday on a grander scale it might simply have been to offer Cubs fans disappointed in their closer much of the past two seasons why Kimbrel has so long been considered in that class of all-time closers.

“It’s been brought up, for really the majority of my career,” he said of the Hall of Fame tag. “I got off to such a good start a lot of people started throwing that out there really early.”

Seven All-Star selections in eight full seasons with a premier ninth-inning arsenal and a career 1.91 ERA will tend to earn that kind of spotlight.

“It’s something you don’t really want to think about,” he said. “It’s such a self-accomplishment in a team game. It’s something that’s given when you’re done playing and not part of the team anymore.

“But it’s not something I can say I haven’t thought about.”

If not for the strange ride through free agency in 2019 and the pandemic-shortened season in 2020, Kimbrel might be closer to 400 saves by now —which would push him past another Hall of Famer, Dennis Eckersley (390) and into seventh all-time.

He’s already the active saves leader.

And he already has more All-Star selections than all but four ahead of him of the all-time list — and as many as all but Rivera (13).

“Obviously, I’ve had success. And I’ve seen what other guys have done,” Kimbrel said. “It’s not something that consumes me. I still have to do my job. I’ve still got a lot more years left to play. I’ve still got a lot more saves to get, and a lot more winning to be a part of for that to actually be a conversation.”

And he has to prove his eye-popping four-appearance start to this season is a return to his norm and not a nice week before falling back into the kind of struggles he had in 2019 and early last season (when he lost his closer job).

The last time he looked and felt this sharp and strong was, well — actually, it was September, as he duly noted to one apparently absent-minded reporter who asked that question Thursday.

In fact, going back through the last month of last season, he’s put together 12 consecutive scoreless starts without a walk and struck out 22 inn those 12 innings.

The biggest difference between that run and his struggles in 2019 and early 2020 with the Cubs?

"Throwing strikes," Kimbrel said.

Opponents have noticed.

"Players and base runners are telling me that he's back on his [past form]," teammate Javy Báez said. "Seeing the way he's pitching and seeing the movement [on pitches]  the way he was.

“He’s something special,” Báez added. “He’s not just doing this now. He’s been doing this for a long time.”

Can he do it next week against Freddie Freeman and the Braves? Next month against the Dodgers and Padres?

Can he do it long enough to make an eighth All-Star team this year? Long enough to earn a better experience with free agency after this season? 

Maybe even to average, say, 33 saves over the next four seasons and move into the top three — or the kind of monster finish to his career that Arrieta talked about?

Maybe.

“Am I happy I’ve put myself in the situation? Absolutely,” Kimbrel, 33, said. “Am I going to keep on working to try to get to that point where someone cam make that decision? Absolutely.

“But coming in each and every day, it’s not something that is really even on the radar of something I’m thinking about,” he said. “It’s just showing up each and every day. And if that comes, it comes. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t”

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