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Kimbrel ready to return to Red Sox camp

With daughter improving after heart surgery, closer set for game action
MLB.com @IanMBrowne

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel headed back to Spring Training on Sunday, and this was an emotional and exciting development for manager Alex Cora.

Kimbrel had been in Boston for nearly three weeks tending to his daughter, Lydia Joy, who recently underwent the second heart surgery of her young life. The fact that Kimbrel got on a plane to rejoin the team was a clear sign that Lydia Joy is improving.

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel headed back to Spring Training on Sunday, and this was an emotional and exciting development for manager Alex Cora.

Kimbrel had been in Boston for nearly three weeks tending to his daughter, Lydia Joy, who recently underwent the second heart surgery of her young life. The fact that Kimbrel got on a plane to rejoin the team was a clear sign that Lydia Joy is improving.

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"Yeah, you just get chills thinking about it," said Cora. "Live BP [Monday for Kimbrel] and like I said, the most important thing is that the family is OK with it, so if they're OK with it, we're OK with it. It's a great day for us."

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Though Kimbrel hasn't pitched in a Grapefruit League game, he has stayed on a regular throwing program in Boston and will be all set to start the regular season on time.

"He'll be ready," said Cora.

It appears Kimbrel will also be able to do his job with more peace of mind, now that Lydia Joy is making improvement.

Kimbrel and his wife, Ashley, found out last summer while Lydia Joy was still in utero that she would be born with heart defects. Lydia Joy was born on Nov. 3, and she had her first heart surgery at 4 days old.

Though baseball has been secondary all along with Kimbrel's situation, the Red Sox are excited to have their ace closer back in the fold.

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"We've had people back at home taking care of him, doing the right thing for him," said pitching coach Dana LeVangie. "Matt Noone has done a great job helping us do a lot of things that we wrote up a schedule for him to follow. With the health of his daughter progressing, it allowed him to commit himself to baseball as well. He'll come today, do some workout stuff, and we'll go from there."

Video: Outlook: Kimbrel could reach 40 saves in 2018

Competitions ongoing
The Red Sox still have competition brewing in the bullpen and for bench spots, and evaluations will intensify in the coming days.

Cora will take part in a big meeting on Monday that includes members of the coaching staff and front office.

"I think probably we will make a cut tomorrow, it all depends on how that meeting goes," Cora said. "And then we've still got the three games on the road. That's a tricky one because we play the Rays, the Orioles and the Yankees [Thursday through Saturday], so it's tricky because we're playing division rivals, and at the same time, the travel. We'll make decisions tomorrow and then probably towards the end of the weekend."

Given that this is Cora's first season as a manager, president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski took the lead on the first round of cuts.

"In the first one, Dave helped me out," Cora said. "He told me the next one, I have to take charge. We'll see how it goes."

Johnson seizing opportunity
Left-hander Brian Johnson, who is out of options, continues to cement his roster spot with a collection of strong performances. The latest was Sunday's start, when he earned a 2-1 win over the Pirates, allowing two hits over four shutout innings.

With Drew Pomeranz, Steven Wright and Eduardo Rodriguez all having a chance to start the season on the disabled list as they work their way back from injuries, Johnson seems like a strong candidate to be in the rotation for at least the start of the season. When the rotation is back to full strength, he will move to the bullpen.

"He's been solid," said Cora. "He goes about his work. He understands who he is. He doesn't want to be somebody else. We've got three great lefties on this team and he doesn't want to be those guys. He understands that. he pitches at 90, 91 [mph] and he needs to change speeds to get his outs. That's what impresses me. In an era where everyone is throwing hard, he's still pitching and that's good."

Video: BOS@PIT: Johnson strikes out Polanco looking

Benintendi launches towering homer
Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi continues to thrive with his new approach of jumping on pitches early in the strike zone. He launched a mammoth homer to right on the first pitch he saw from Pirates reliever Brett McKinney in the top of the fifth inning on Sunday.

"I'm trying to get something I can handle and be specific with where over the plate I want it, and it's been working," said Benintendi. "I think last year I felt like I was always down in the count, whether it be 0-2 or 1-2, and it's tough to hit when you're down in the count. If it keeps working like this, I'm going to do it during the season."

Video: BOS@PIT: Benintendi belts a solo homer to right

A rare bunt double by Moreland
With third base vacated for the shift in the top of the first inning, Mitch Moreland punched a bunt double all the way into left field. If Moreland can show the ability to do that enough, defenders will have to be careful about shifting early in the count.

"They're going to have to make adjustments and instead of shifting him right away, that third baseman is going to be at third base and he's going to have lanes to hit the ball," said Cora.

Pomeranz ramps back up
For the first time since suffering a mild flexor strain in his left forearm in a start on March 2, Pomeranz pitched in a game on Sunday, albeit in a controlled setting on a back field.

Pomeranz threw 33 pitches over two innings while facing teammates Rafael Devers and Sandy Leon.

"I felt good. I don't know velocity-wise what it was, but it was carrying through and it was getting on them quick," Pomeranz said. "That's what I look for, the four-seam, the way it's coming out of my hand. It was coming out good."

As with other rehabbing starters Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright, it is uncertain if Pomeranz will be able to start the season on time. If he does spend time on the disabled list, he will probably only miss one start.

"I'm not sure. That's something I'll have to talk about with them," Pomeranz said. "I don't know where the schedule falls, where they have me falling either, so I have to sit down and figure that out."

Up next
Ace Chris Sale makes his third Grapefruit League start in Monday's 1:05 p.m. ET home game against the Phillies. Top setup men Carson Smith and Joe Kelly will see action out of the bullpen.

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.

Boston Red Sox, Craig Kimbrel