In a cruel twist for the Cubs on Saturday night, the final pitch that Craig Kimbrel threw generated a swing and a miss. It was a positive result, but one that also came with a punch-to-the-gut outcome.
The curveball that spun from Kimbrels fingers, and dove under the swing of Jose Garcia, dropped to the dirt and skipped underneath the glove of catcher Willson Contreras. Nick Castellanos hustled home for the Reds, and the Cubs were dealt a 6-5 loss on a wild pitch in the second tilt of a doubleheader.
"It was definitely playing tonight," Kimbrel said of his curve. "It's just, tonight didn't work out."
Kimbrel walked three and was charged with three wild pitches, paving the way for a two-run rally in the seventh and final frame at Great American Ball Park.
It was an unraveling that came after a series of recent steps forward for Kimbrel, who has been earning back trust for crucial late-game situations. His fastball has ticked up in velocity and featured late life and rise. The curve has created feeble swings and helped him pile up strikeouts.
"Craig's been trending in the right direction up until this point," Cubs manager David Ross said. "I mean, we've got to give him credit for that."
The defeat brought a sour ending to the doubleheader, which began with an impressive outing by Yu Darvish and a pair of homers by Anthony Rizzo in a 3-0 win in Game 1. In the evening, a pitch that buzzed Rizzo's head in the fourth led to a combined five ejections (Ross included) and a brief benches-clearing shouting match.
That mid-game moment seemed to stir Chicago's bats, which rallied for four runs across the fourth, fifth and sixth to claim a 5-4 lead. David Bote highlighted the push with a two-run homer -- complete with an emphatic flip of the bat -- three batters after Tejay Antone's high-and-tight heater to Rizzo.
"The good part is that we fought back," Ross said. "I'm going to focus on the great at-bats we had to get ourselves back in the game and in the lead."
Ross does not have a closer in title in the bullpen, but he has instead preferred to mix and match with Jeremy Jeffress, Rowan Wick and Kimbrel in save opportunities. In the opening game, Jeffress worked the seventh to collect the save behind Darvish's six-inning gem.
In Game 2, quality assurance coach Mike Napoli was managing with pitching coach Tommy Hottovy at his side after Ross' first career ejection. They turned to Wick for the sixth, and the righty kept the Cubs' lead at one.
That put Kimbrel in line for the save opportunity this time.
"It all made a lot of sense," Ross said, "up until the very end."
In his previous five appearances, Kimbrel registered 11 strikeouts against four walks with no runs or hits allowed in 4 2/3 innings. His average fastball velocity was up to 96.9 mph in that stretch and he had generated 18 total whiffs, including seven within 37 curveballs, per Statcast.
Prior to that run were Kimbrel's first four outings of the season. In those, he gave up seven runs on six hits with five walks and two strikeouts in 2 2/3 innings. Kimbrel had one whiff within 30 curves, five swings and misses overall and an average fastball of 96.2 mph.
There is no denying that things have been getting better.
"He's been working his tail off every day," Rizzo said. "We're behind him every single day. Every time he comes to the mound, we're behind him and have full confidence in him. He's Craig Kimbrel. He has his resume for a reason."
The seventh began with a leadoff walk to Curt Casali, who moved to second on a wild pitch. Two batters later, another walk, and then a bloop single to center by Aristides Aquino that pulled the game into a 5-5 tie. Another wild pitch moved two runners into scoring position, prompting an intentional walk to Eugenio Suárez to load the bases with one out.
Mike Moustakas went down swinging, setting up the game's decisive moment with Garcia in the batter's box. Garcia's swinging strike was one of five whiffs that Kimbrel induced with the curve. The fastball was 97.3 mph on average, and it maxed out at 98.7 mph, per Statcast.
More cruel twists.
"I don't think you ever want to call blowing a save and losing a game part of the process," Kimbrel said. "But also, I wouldn't call it a step back, either. I felt like my stuff was still good. I still was able to make big pitches when I needed to.
"I just had a ball get through the legs and we had a blooper drop. Obviously, because I walked guys, that hurt us."
Right-hander Tyler Chatwood (2-2, 6.06 ERA) is slated to start for the Cubs on Sunday, when the Reds host the North Siders at 12:10 p.m. CT at Great American Ball Park. The game will be broadcast on Marquee Sports Network and for free on MLB.TV.