Kimbrel falters in 9th as Dodgers drop series to Guardians

June 20th, 2022

LOS ANGELES -- When the Dodgers acquired Craig Kimbrel in April for outfielder AJ Pollock, the team was optimistic that the veteran would help solidify the void left by longtime closer Kenley Jansen, who signed with the Braves over the offseason. 

Over the last few weeks, however, Kimbrel has struggled to find consistency and has racked up an uncharacteristic amount of walks. He hasn’t had a clean outing since June 2 and came into Sunday’s game with a 5.63 ERA in his last eight appearances. 

Kimbrel’s struggles continued on Sunday as the right-hander allowed two runs in the ninth inning in the Dodgers’ 5-3 loss to the Guardians at Dodger Stadium. He now owns a 7.00 ERA over his last nine outings.

Despite having other worthy options on the roster, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts made it clear that the team won’t be making a change with their closer anytime soon.

“I think we’re a ways from that point,” Roberts said. “Obviously, we’ve used [Daniel] Hudson, [Evan] Phillips and [Brusdar] Graterol in different roles. But as far as specifically the closer, Craig is our closer.”

Roberts said that while Kimbrel has struggled lately, the team has been encouraged by his pure stuff this season. Kimbrel’s four-seam fastball has had good velocity all season, but the command hasn’t always been there. The same can be said for his knuckle curve.

In the ninth on Sunday, Kimbrel struck out Owen Miller on a four-seamer to start his outing. The rest of his inning wasn’t as clean. Kimbrel walked Oscar Gonzalez on a 3-2 fastball just below the knees. Josh Naylor then doubled down the line on a ball with an expected batting average of .030, forcing the Dodgers to intentionally walk Steven Kwan to load the bases.

Andrés Giménez jumped on the first pitch he saw, lining a single into center field to give the Guardians the lead. Cleveland tacked on an insurance run, raising Kimbrel’s season ERA to 4.71. Over his last 12 innings, Kimbrel has allowed 24 baserunners.

“I’m giving up runs, walking guys,” Kimbrel said. “I’m not necessarily giving up a lot of hard-hit balls. But when you’re walking guys and then giving up singles and balls that aren’t hit so hard, runs are going to score. It seems like I’ve had quite a few outings where that happened.”

Though struggles in the closer’s role are usually magnified, Kimbrel wasn’t the lone reason the Dodgers dropped the series finale on Sunday. Before the game, the Dodgers placed superstar outfielder Mookie Betts on the 10-day injured list with a right rib fracture. Betts’ bat will be missed in a lineup that has scuffled for weeks.

But the five-time Gold Glove outfielder’s absence might be felt even more on the defensive side.

With Betts out and right-hander Shane Bieber on the mound, the Dodgers trotted Eddy Alvarez out in right field for just the second time in his career. Zach McKinstry was the team’s other option, but the utility man wasn’t at Dodger Stadium on time for the game after getting recalled Saturday night. As the old baseball saying goes, the ball ended up finding Alvarez often.

In the second inning, Alvarez committed an error on a routine fly ball hit by Oscar Mercado. Two batters later, Alvarez didn’t get a good read on a flare by Ernie Clement, helping the Guardians load the bases and take the early lead on Austin Hedges' sacrifice fly that followed. Then in the ninth, Naylor’s double dropped in, despite Alvarez’s diving attempt.

Until Betts is able to return from the IL, the Dodgers will continue to rely on Alvarez against right-handed pitching. The Dodgers will also look for external help in the outfield, particularly with the need to add another position player on Monday, when MLB’s 13-pitcher limit goes into effect.

“It’s a tough situation to be put in, but it’s a situation I want to be put in,” Alvarez said. “I want to be out there again tomorrow or the next game, I’m just that kind of guy and that player. This one was definitely on me.”

The sloppy game wrapped up another forgettable weekend for the Dodgers. They’re 7-9 in June and will need to bounce back during the upcoming three-city, nine-game road trip. And they’ll have to do it quickly, all without their best player.