Kimbrel keeps progressing with simulated game

Contreras makes rare start at first base; Kintzler could throw soon

September 18th, 2019

CHICAGO -- was back on the mound at Wrigley Field on Tuesday afternoon, hunched over, peering in at his catcher with his right arm extended in his signature setup. In the batter's box was Cubs infielder Robel Garcia.

While the appearance was just a 16-pitch simulated inning, Kimbrel is now one step closer to returning to the ninth inning for the North Siders. The switch-hitting Garcia hit from both sides against Kimbrel, facing a heavy dose of fastballs and a handful of curveballs in what might be the final step before the Cubs activate their closer from the injured list.

How did Kimbrel look to manager Joe Maddon?

"Normal," Maddon said. "It looked really good, actually. Delivery was good, and there was no hesitation with his arm. He wasn't guarding whatsoever. I thought the fastball was alive. The curveball, maybe the command of the curveball was off a bit, but the break was there. It was very encouraging."

If Kimbrel continues to feel normal on Wednesday, there is a strong chance that the right-hander might be activated in time for the Cubs' upcoming weekend series against the Cardinals. Both Maddon and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said that was a possibility, though Hottovy added that the Cubs could also plan another simulated game, depending on how Kimbrel feels.

Kimbrel has been sidelined for most of this month due to right elbow inflammation, but he has now worked through three mound workouts since the injury flared up on Sept. 1 against the Brewers. For Tuesday's session, the closer went through a normal warmup routine, which included a series of throws in the bullpen, before moving to the mound.

"I feel like every single day he throws it just gets better and better," Hottovy said. "I thought the ball was coming out well. It'll be interesting to see once we get pitch data from all the KinaTrax and the Rapsodo and Trackman stuff, and we can kind of compare some stuff.

"But, from the eye test, I thought the ball was coming out well, and mechanically, I thought the big thing for me was he wasn't guarding anything."

Originally, Kimbrel expressed that he thought he would be able to return this past Thursday, when he was first eligible for activation. The Cubs projected that this past weekend might have been a realistic target, too. Given that Kimbrel's comeback is nearly a week longer than the initial estimates, Hottovy was asked if the more gradual process came as a surprise.

"Not really," Hottovy said, "just because any time you're dealing with an elbow, I think you want to make sure that every step of the way, he feels better. And timetable is one thing, but it's more about how he recovers every single day after."

Worth noting

• With first baseman Anthony Rizzo (right ankle sprain) sidelined, Maddon is mixing and matching at first base. Catcher Victor Caratini manned first on Monday, but he was back behind the plate to catch Yu Darvish on Tuesday. That opened the door for All-Star catcher Willson Contreras to start at first for the first time since Aug. 9, 2017.

"I texted him last night to want to make sure that he wanted to do that," Maddon said. "Once he was on board, it's really easy for me. ... I've seen him do it before. He's very comfortable there."

Maddon noted that Contreras came up through the Minor Leagues as an infielder before transitioning to catching. The manager added that playing first base can also benefit the catcher, given that he is still not far removed from missing most of August with a hamstring injury.

• Right-hander Brandon Kintzler has only logged 1 2/3 innings in September and has not pitched since Sept. 10 due to a mild left oblique strain. Hottovy said on Tuesday that Kintzler might be ready to throw a bullpen session within the next few days.

"We had a good catch day today," Hottovy said. "I think the thought process with him is try to get him off the mound in the next day or so, test some things. He's a guy, too, once the symptoms and everything goes away and he feels like he can get into that front side and everything, then he should be ready to go."

• All-Star shortstop Javier Báez (hairline fracture in his left thumb) has rejoined the team after heading home for a brief period of time. Maddon indicated that Báez was scheduled to be reassessed before the end of the current homestand. Báez is out for the regular season, but his timetable for a potential return in October remains unclear.