FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It was hard to miss the warmth that greeted Craig Kimbrel on his first day back at Spring Training after an emotional three-week absence during which he slept in his daughter Lydia Joy's hospital room nightly as she recovered from heart surgery."Welcome back, Craig," one fan
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It was hard to miss the warmth that greeted Craig Kimbrel on his first day back at Spring Training after an emotional three-week absence during which he slept in his daughter Lydia Joy's hospital room nightly as she recovered from heart surgery.
"Welcome back, Craig," one fan said as Kimbrel completed his live batting-practice session.
"Have a great season, Craig," said another.
Kimbrel delivered some good news during a media briefing on Monday morning. Lydia Joy, who is 4 1/2 months old and has now had two heart surgeries, is making strong improvement. If things stay on their current course, she will have her third and final heart surgery at the age of 3 or 4.
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"Everyone is sending out prayers that have definitely been heard," Kimbrel said. "She's in a good, comfortable place for me to be down here. If she wasn't, I wouldn't be here. Again, I just want to thank everybody for being so understanding and everything they've done for us."
There were anxious moments for Craig and his wife, Ashley, in the days and weeks that followed surgery, but Lydia Joy's condition has started to improve by the day.
"In the last week, her recovery has been unbelievable and she's showing great signs and we're very blessed," said Kimbrel. "She's on the way up. It was just two days ago we were pushing her around on the stroller and she was getting close to being her same self. It's very encouraging and unbelievable to see."
All morning, Red Sox players and coaches re-welcomed Kimbrel, and president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski chatted with him in the clubhouse.
Throughout a trying time, Kimbrel felt all of Red Sox Nation rooting for his family. And that very much included his second family -- his teammates.
Kimbrel was aware that his teammates all wore warmup T-shirts that said "Lydia Strong" before a recent game.
"It meant everything," Kimbrel said. "Knowing I'm away and knowing everyone down here had me on their minds and my family on their minds, this is my family as well. We spend more time with each other than we do our own families. We're going to be going through this the entire year. So having their support and having them behind me to get together and to do something like that, it was great."
Most of all, Kimbrel is grateful for the care his daughter received at the nationally-renowned Children's Hospital in Boston.
"I can't say enough about how amazing Boston Children's Hospital has been -- the nurses, the doctors, they've been absolutely amazing in helping us through this process and helping more with me and Ashley, because we know Lydia is taken care of," said Kimbrel. "We love that girl more than anything. God gave me this ability to play baseball and if it wasn't for this game of baseball, we wouldn't be in Boston and having this care."
Now it is back to baseball for Kimbrel, an elite closer who pronounced himself ready for Opening Day on March 29 at Tropicana Field against the Rays.
"I just got done throwing a live BP and I'd say I'm ready to go," Kimbrel said. "I'll get in a few games this week. I think it's just kind of getting my feet under me, getting my foot in the clay. I've been throwing a lot indoors and a lot off a mound. So getting my foot on a mound and getting my cleats wet in that nice clay is definitely something that in this week I put my work into."
Always legendary for his work ethic and focus, Kimbrel has no doubt that those things will stay the same, even with what is going on at home.
"Everything I do is for them anyway," Kimbrel said of his wife and child. "There's not going to be any difference when I go back out there on the mound."
The mound feels better to Kimbrel now that he has reason to believe Lydia Joy is going to live a healthy life.
"Absolutely. Her anatomy's great. It takes time for the body to heal," said Kimbrel. "It's unbelievable what infants' and babies' bodies can do. They're a lot stronger than we are. That's a fact. Through this entire process, she's been strong. She's been showing steps of improvement and it's very encouraging.
"It's just through the process of not knowing and having to understand the steps you've got to go through for precautionary reasons and one thing here, and one thing there, you've just got to check all the boxes and make sure everything is OK. That was tough. But she's definitely getting through that."
Lydia Joy should be released from the hospital in about two weeks. And as the timing works out, that is right around the time Kimbrel and the Red Sox will be coming home to open their season at Fenway Park, which is scheduled for April 5 against the Rays.
And less than a mile from Fenway stands the institution to which Kimbrel will remain forever grateful.
"Boston Children's is the best hospital for this. And it has been amazing to watch these doctors work and these nurses work," Kimbrel said. "It's an unbelievable team they have there."
Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.