Is Kimbrel still the closer? 'I'll get back to you'

August 2nd, 2020

CHICAGO -- Cubs manager David Ross was not ready to answer the question. Before heading down the public road of discussing whether will remain in the closer's role for Chicago, Ross said Saturday that he needed to have more dialogue with the veteran pitcher.

Only one week into this young season, the Cubs have uncertainty in the ninth inning.

"I'll get back to you on that one," Ross said. "I'm in the middle of conversations with Craig, so we'll have those with him first before I talk to you guys. We'll see where he's at, see how his arm feels."

Kimbrel is only two appearances into his season, but the 32-year-old righty has labored mightily out of the gates.

In Friday's 6-3 win over the Pirates, Kimbrel took over with a five-run cushion in the ninth and promptly allowed back-to-back homers to Josh Bell and Colin Moran. All five batters Kimbrel faced put the ball in play -- each doing so with an exit velocity in excess of 100 mph, per Statcast.

The silver lining was that the large lead afforded Kimbrel to let loose with his fastball, which averaged 96.6 mph and maxed out at 97.2 mph in the outing. He was around the strike zone more than in his '20 debut on Monday, when Kimbrel walked four, allowed two runs, hit a batter and recorded just one out against the Reds.

"Definitely, I like the fact that the velocity's there," Ross said. "There's just a couple other things that I think, if we can lock in, we'll see a much better Craig."

Having Kimbrel get his curveball back on track tops that list. Through two outings, the righty has thrown 17 breaking balls and opposing batters have not swung once. That has helped enable hitters to sit on the fastball, as Friday's outing put on full display.

Kimbrel's struggles come after he posted a 6.53 ERA with a career-high nine home runs allowed in 20 2/3 innings for the Cubs last season.

"There's some mechanical things that we can shore up," Ross said, "to where he's back to hiding the ball a little bit more, a little more deception in his delivery when he's right. Some of the conversations we've had, he's not quite where he wants to be in that."

Ross was non-committal when pressed about whether he would hand Kimbrel the ball when the next save opportunity arrives. If the manager does want to go in a different direction -- while buying Kimbrel time to sort through the issues -- Chicago's main alternatives would include , and . All three worked in Saturday's 4-3 win, with Wick earning the save. Ross said after the win that Kimbrel was unavailable after throwing an "intense" bullpen session.

"He's frustrated and he wants to work through it," Ross said of Kimbrel. "He wants to be better. And so, we're here to help him and continue to move forward. We need him to be good if we're going to have a lot of success."

Cubs "all accountable" on COVID-19 front
As a group of teams around the Majors have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic -- including St. Louis and Milwaukee in the Cubs' division -- Chicago has remained steady with no positive tests within their player group to date.

"All that we can really do is worry about the Chicago Cubs," Cubs pitcher Jon Lester said. "Guys around here, if you see somebody without a mask on walking around the clubhouse, guys point it out. So I think we're all accountable to each other, and that's a good thing. And hopefully we can continue to do that."

In a pregame Zoom discussion with Chicago reporters, Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer noted that the team has appointed Vijay Tekchandani, the Cubs' director of team travel and clubhouse operations, as the compliance officer for the COVID-19 protocols.

"I think we've done everything we can to keep our players safe," Hoyer said. "We've over-communicated as much as possible and, luckily, we have a group of players that's been incredibly vigilant themselves."

Worth noting
• The Brewers announced Saturday that veteran outfielder Lorenzo Cain has elected not to play the rest of the 2020 season due to concerns about the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Lester said decisions like the one made by Cain need to be respected under the current climate and circumstances.

"Lorenzo Cain is a big part of the MLB fraternity, a great player, a face for a franchise," Lester said. "But we all have to sit back and allow guys to make decisions that best suit them and best suit their families. I will never question a guy like Lorenzo. I'll never question his thought process to that."

• Cubs third baseman was scratched moments before the start of Saturday's game against the Pirates due to gastrointestinal issues, according to the team. After Saturday's win, Ross noted that Bryant would go through rapid COVID-19 testing early Sunday morning as a precautionary measure, adding that the medical staff felt it was just a stomach bug.

"Sent him home early," Ross said Saturday night. "Just got to run through standard protocols, just making sure -- with everything we got going on -- making sure he's feeling all right, one, and we'll get him tested just as a precaution tomorrow morning, first thing. But all indications from the doctor and everybody else is it's just a bad stomach."

Center fielder Ian Happ moved into the leadoff spot in Bryant's place and utility man David Bote entered the lineup as the third baseman. On Tuesday in Cincinnati, Bryant missed a game due to left elbow soreness.

• During the Cubs' opening series against the Brewers, Lester and fellow starter Tyler Chatwood took time to watch part of a game from Wrigley Field's bleachers. That was something Anthony Rizzo also did during a couple of Summer Camp intrasquad games.

"Even with nobody out there, it was a cool view. I'm glad I did it," Lester said. "And then me and Chatty walked around the stadium a little bit and just sat in some different places just to get some different views. ... Probably the one good thing about having no fans is we get to see this ballpark that we wouldn't normally get to."

• Left-hander José Quintana (10-day injured list, left thumb) threw 38 pitches in a bullpen session on Saturday. The Cubs indicated that the pitcher is scheduled to throw off the mound again on Monday.

"I want this season to keep going. For the Cubs, I want it to keep going, because I love the way we're playing, the way we're acting. And for baseball, because I think it's incredibly important as an industry that we play a season." -- Hoyer