Cubs escape after Kimbrel's erratic debut
Cubs manager David Ross looked over the upcoming matchups and waited. He kept closer Craig Kimbrel on the mound in the ninth inning on Monday night, even as the veteran struggled to command his fastball or find his curve.
Kimbrel walked the bases loaded, and then hit Freddy Galvis with a pitch. And Ross continued to wait.
"I'm not trying to make excuses for anybody," Ross said. "But, we've got to give a little bit of leash. This is a really unique situation that we're dealing with."
The Cubs escaped with an 8-7 victory over the Reds at Great American Ball Park, but Kimbrel's 2020 debut was fraught with drama. It did nothing to ease the concerns about Chicago's bullpen, and the group's collective woes Monday nearly erased a nice offense showing, not to mention the five no-hit innings from Jon Lester.
Kimbrel was not the only reliever to flinch in Cincinnati -- turning a 7-0 lead into an unexpected save situation -- but every pitch he throws is placed under the microscope. The Cubs signed the once-elite closer to a multiyear contract last year with the hopes of stabilizing the late innings.
Instead, late-inning adventure has been a staple of Kimbrel's brief Cubs career.
"We're not losing trust in Craig," said Cubs reliever Jeremy Jeffress, "because he's a phenomenal pitcher."
And yet, it was Jeffress who ultimately nailed down the Cubs' first save of 2020.
Ross has emphasized the importance of getting plenty of looks at his relievers early on this season, as the Cubs try to sort out the best way to align their arms. There is little time for evaluation in a 60-game season, and rosters will shrink to 28 from 30 players two weeks into the campaign.
Following Lester's departure, five relievers worked the sixth through eighth innings as the Reds struck for five runs. That created a save situation, pressing Kimbrel into duty. After a three-week Summer Camp, which followed a three-month hiatus, Ross said some early bumps in the road should be expected.
"You've seen a lot of the guys the first time out haven't been real sharp," Ross said.
And as Jeffress pointed out, there is the additional obstacle of learning how to pitch in an empty ballpark with artificial crowd noise piping through the speakers.
"For guys like me and Craig and guys that like to pitch in the back end of the bullpen," he said, "you need that same type of game feeling. And we just didn't have that during the spring and the spring 2.0, and the crowd and all that stuff.
"So guys like us, we need that adrenaline from other things to boost our mentality to go out there and perform."
Although that is true, there is also the backdrop of Kimbrel's struggles in 2019. In 23 appearances for the Cubs last season, Kimbrel posted a 6.53 ERA and allowed a career-high nine home runs in just 20 2/3 innings.
Kimbrel did not pitch in any of the Cubs' first three games and had not worked since Chicago's July 20 exhibition game against the White Sox. When he took over in the ninth on Monday, Kimbrel issued a leadoff walk to Nick Castellanos and followed that with a wild pitch.
"He hadn't had work in six days," Ross said. "Part of that is just he's got to knock off some rust and then continue to trust his stuff."
Kimbrel's fastball clocked in at 96.2 mph on average and maxed out at 97.5 mph (per Statcast), but the righty labored to keep it in the strike zone. That led to a situation where the Reds just did not bite at his curve. The closer fired 15 breaking balls and Cincinnati did not swing once.
Kimbrel walked Josh VanMeter and Shogo Akiyama to load the bases with one out, and then hit Galvis to bring in a run. At that point, Jeffress was warming up. Kimbrel then walked rookie Tyler Stephenson, forcing in another run to cut the Cubs' lead to one run.
That is when Ross pulled the plug on Kimbrel, following 34 pitches (13 strikes).
"I really thought Kimbrel could blow the fastball by Stephenson. Didn't happen," Ross said. "Went with a breaking ball a little bit more. I talked to him about that. Two swings on fastballs that I thought were a little bit tardy, and then went to the breaking ball, which he just continued to try to find."
Jeffress entered with the goal of getting a game-ending grounder, but he took a more circuitous route to the win column.
First, Jeffress struck out Phillip Ervin. That set up a bases-loaded, two-out battle with Joey Votto, who worked the count full. Votto then drove a liner to center field, where Albert Almora Jr. gloved the ball to bring on a sigh of relief.
If Kimbrel's struggles persist, consider Jeffress the backup plan.
"[Kimbrel] just didn't trust his fastball enough tonight, for me," Ross said. "I think he can trust that a little more. It was electric. Get him back to being who he is. I want him to trust himself."