Craig Kimbrel told he won't be Dodgers' closer before Albert Pujols' historic game

Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel (46) walks off the pitchers mound.
Dodgers relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel walks off the mound against the Miami Marlins on Aug. 30. (Marta Lavandier / Associated Press)

Craig Kimbrel is no longer the Dodgers' closer.

There. Dave Roberts said so Friday. Finally.

The words came haltingly, with thoughtful pauses, but they came.

“I just think that right now, um, I’m going to keep Craig down tonight,” Roberts said. “And my expectation is, yeah, I talked to him today. Right now the plan is to change roles and get him into a position to pitch in different innings in different situations.

“He was very open to doing whatever is best for the ballclub. So I feel good about it and we’ll see where that takes us.”

Roberts comments came ahead of the Dodgers' 11-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Dodger Stadium highlighted by Albert Pujols joining Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth in the 700 home run club. The former Dodgers and Angels slugger hit a two-run homer off Andrew Heaney in the third inning and a three-run shot off Phil Bickford in the fourth to the delight of a crowd of 50,041.

When the sixth inning rolled around, Roberts contradicted his pregame statement by calling on Kimbrel with the Dodgers trailing 8-0. Is the new role of a reliever with 394 career saves mop-up man? It's hard to know how best to use him. Kimbrel did retire Pujols on a groundout to shortstop and needed only seven pitches to retire the side.

"The way the game played out, he was needed," Roberts said. "He did say that if he was needed he would pitch."

Kimbrel gave up a home run in the ninth inning Thursday that put the Arizona Diamondbacks ahead by a run. The Dodgers won in the bottom of the inning on Mookie Betts’ walk-off single, which gave Kimbrel the win. That clearly was the last straw for Roberts.

Kimbrel, 34, has blown five of 27 save opportunities and has a 4.07 ERA in 58 appearances this season. Only 12.1% of his pitches swung at are missed, about league average. Yet he is seventh all-time in career saves and led the league in saves four consecutive years ending in 2014.

Perhaps that’s why Roberts and the Dodgers front office stuck with him so long even though his effectiveness had obviously diminished from his heyday.

Roberts said he appreciated the way Kimbrel took the news that he was no longer the closer.

“My job is to find the best lane for him and he has no worries of changing the routine from something he’s always done," Roberts said. "He looks at it as a challenge. That’s the way we would expect it and it speaks a lot to him as a team player.”

Roberts said no one reliever will assume the closer role for now. Evan Phillips (6-3, 1.24 ERA), Brusdar Graterol (2-3, 2.96) and Alex Vesia (4-0, 2.26) are the obvious candidates.

Dodgers relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel delivers against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday.
Dodgers relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel delivers against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

"No, for us it’s finding, it’s treating him like we treat all of our guys, putting them in the best position to get outs," Roberts said. "That’s kind of how I’m going to approach every inning for the ‘pen."

Phillips, 28, has been the undisputed top reliever all season, giving up 29 hits in 58 innings while striking out 68. He's in line for closer duty, although his value has been putting out fires regardless of the inning.

Also, he has only three career saves, two this season. Phillips said he wouldn't treat the ninth inning differently than any other.

"I think the best thing you can do as the guy coming out to finish the game is to provide consistency throughout the season," he said.

If a closer-by-committee approach fails, the Dodgers face a situation where a new closer must emerge with the postseason around the corner. Phillips didn't sound like he would be fazed.

"I don’t really value that role any higher than what I do now," he said. "I think the [Dodgers] really instilled in us that when the phone rings you go out there and get your outs. So regardless of the situation, and it might be the ninth inning or a tight ballgame, however you want to phrase it, my challenge is that when the phone rings, I do my job."

Kimbrel likely will be used almost exclusively against right-handed hitters, who are batting .208 with a .603 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against him. Left-handers are hitting .266 with a .786 OPS.

Silencing the Dodgers on Friday was longtime nemesis Jose Quintana, who pitched six scoreless innings, reducing his ERA in 12 career games against the Dodgers to 1.80. The left-hander struggled to a 6.75 ERA in 24 appearances with the Angels in 2021 but has posted a 3.04 ERA in 30 starts with the Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates this season.

Tony Gonsolin's next step

Roberts said injured starter Tony Gonsolin had normal soreness "which is a good thing" a day after he pitched two innings in a simulated game at Dodger Stadium. Roberts said Gonsolin is scheduled to pitch two innings in a rehab game at triple-A Oklahoma City.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.