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Kimbrel lights up Wrigley with first Cubs save

Closer on fans: 'It's a lot better when they're on your side'
@MLBastian
June 27, 2019

CHICAGO -- The crowd inside Wrigley Field was on its feet and roaring when the bullpen door opened in the ninth inning on Thursday. Javier Baez had just jogged from the clubhouse back to the Cubs’ dugout because he did not want to miss the fans’ reaction. Craig Kimbrel emerged

CHICAGO -- The crowd inside Wrigley Field was on its feet and roaring when the bullpen door opened in the ninth inning on Thursday. Javier Baez had just jogged from the clubhouse back to the Cubs’ dugout because he did not want to miss the fans’ reaction.

Craig Kimbrel emerged from the doorway in the left-field wall, Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” blaring, and then made his way to the mound as the old ballpark shook. When the Cubs’ new closer hunched over, glared towards the plate and hoisted his right arm in the air, the fans once again erupted.

You will have to forgive Kimbrel for not noticing.

“I was pretty locked in, sorry,” Kimbrel said.

On his first day in a Cubs uniform, Kimbrel locked down a wild 9-7 victory over the Braves that required a stirring comeback to even make the save situation possible. His outing started with an electric 97-mph fastball for a called strike to Brian McCann and ended with a hug from first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who recorded the last out by diving and slapping first with his glove on a grounder from Freddie Freeman.

Box score

That marked the 334th save of Kimbrel’s career, which began with him establishing himself as an all-time great stopper over five seasons with Atlanta. So, of course, the Braves were the team in town when the right-hander put the period on his Triple-A tune-up after signing a three-year, $43 million contract with Chicago.

“You knew it was going to happen today,” Freeman said. “All things were going to fall into place for him to get in that game. I really wanted to come through there.”

There has been a locker reserved for Kimbrel -- complete with a glistening name plate -- inside the Cubs' clubhouse for the past few weeks. On Thursday morning, Chicago officially recalled the closer from Triple-A Iowa and he finally opened the wood doors and filled the space with his belongings.

"We got him here," Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward said. "We know why he's here. He knows why he's here. He picked us and we want to make it worth it for him."

When word began spreading that the Cubs were showing interest in Kimbrel earlier this month, Heyward -- teammates with the closer during their Atlanta days -- sent him a lengthy text message as a recruiting effort. As it happened, Heyward was a catalyst in Thursday’s comeback with a two-run single in a three-run fourth and an RBI triple in a four-run fifth.

After signing with the Cubs on June 7, Kimbrel went through a throwing progression at the club's complex in Arizona before embarking on a four-game tour with Iowa. He completed back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday, and he made his final appearance at Triple-A on Tuesday night. Kimbrel sat around 95-96 mph with his fastball, and he showed off his usual curve in the Minor League outings.

"He threw well," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He kept the velocity, [he] was up to 96 and we totally anticipate, being here with more adrenaline, it's going to be higher than that.”

Maddon’s words proved prophetic.

Kimbrel said he was a “couple ticks down,” but the closer averaged 96.5 mph with his fastball and topped out at 97.6 mph, per Statcast. Freeman said he thought those readings sounded low. Kimbrel struck out McCann looking with a curveball, induced a grounder from Johan Camargo and eventually got Freeman to ground out to Rizzo.

Before the adventurous final out -- on which some first-day jitters may have contributed to Kimbrel not covering first base -- Ronald Acuna Jr. doubled to left and Dansby Swanson drew a four-pitch walk. That sequence dropped the decibel level in the stadium, but Kimbrel recovered to allow for an enjoyable team flight to Cincinnati.

“The first one's always a tough one,” Kimbrel said. “Mentally, I've been kind of slowly going through this. It might take a week or so until I'm settled in. But, it's still good enough right now.”

Over parts of the past nine MLB seasons spent between the Braves, Padres and Red Sox, Kimbrel had amassed 333 saves (most among active pitchers) to go along with a 1.91 ERA and a rate of 14.7 strikeouts per nine innings.

Maddon noted recently that Kimbrel would be limited to three-out appearances for now, especially given the prolonged offseason the pitcher experienced as a free agent. The market for Kimbrel did not really pick up steam until around the MLB Draft, and his signing after the annual event means that there is no Draft pick compensation linked to his contract.

On Thursday morning, Maddon met briefly with Kimbrel and emphasized to the pitcher to let the manager know each day how he is feeling. Maddon does not want to use the closer strictly based on a schedule.

"Of course, you never want to overuse them," Maddon said. "But, it's really important to listen to the guys that have done it before. So that was the one thing I wanted to get across to him.”

With Kimbrel now in the Cubs' bullpen, Pedro Strop will be moved back to the eighth-inning role. That will give Maddon more flexibility to use sidearmer Steve Cishek and righty Brandon Kintzler in a variety of leverage situations based on matchups. The added depth should also help the Cubs manager find opportunistic spots for Brad Brach, Kyle Ryan and Mike Montgomery.

"It turns a nine-inning game into an eight-inning game," Brach said. "You have me, Steve, Kintzler, Ryan, you have all these pieces that you can piece together.”

Thursday was a great example. After five innings from starter Tyler Chatwood, who allowed six runs in a rocky performance, Maddon was able to give the ball to Cishek in the sixth and then Kintzler in the seventh. That set things up perfectly for Strop to handle the eighth, bridging the gap to Kimbrel.

“If Chatwood doesn't go five, then just add another inning to the mix,” said Maddon, adding that Kimbrel’s presence helped make that a non-issue. “You can't express how important that is. It matters. Those three outs are so big.”

Brach said there might be an adjustment period for the altered roles throughout the bullpen, but that is a small price to pay when it is a pitcher of Kimbrel's ilk causing the shuffle.

"At this point, it's all about winning," Brach said. "You're not just talking one of the better guys, you're talking about one of the best of all-time. It's going to be interesting to see how he goes about his work. I'm just really excited to see him pitch."

That day arrived on Thursday.

“That gave me chills,” Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said.

Kimbrel has pitched in Wrigley Field in the past. He enjoyed the atmosphere more this time around.

“It's a lot better when they're on your side -- I can tell you that,” he said. “I've been doing this long enough. I've been able to have a chance to pitch in front of a lot of loud crowds. Today was another one and it was pretty awesome.”

Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.