Kimbrel blows save, then exits with back tightness

April 28th, 2024

BALTIMORE -- The first six pitches to leave ’s right hand at the start of the ninth inning on Sunday afternoon were balls, and Orioles manager Brandon Hyde could tell something might be wrong. The 35-year-old closer’s body movement seemed a bit off.

“The way he was walking around just didn’t look right,” Hyde said.

That prompted a visit from Hyde, head athletic trainer Brian Ebel and pitching coach Drew French to check on Kimbrel, who was dealing with upper back tightness. He threw one warmup pitch, told everybody he was OK and got back to pitching.

Shortly after, Kimbrel blew his second consecutive save opportunity against the A’s, giving up a two-run home run to Kyle McCann that sent the O’s to a 7-6 loss at Camden Yards. The homer came on the ninth pitch of the at-bat -- seven pitches after Baltimore opted to leave in Kimbrel, who had opened the inning by walking Darell Hernaiz.

After Kimbrel threw one ball to the hitter following McCann (Lawrence Butler), Hyde and Ebel returned to the mound. Kimbrel then exited the game, leaving with Ebel by his side and his status in question.

“He threw a pitch and it looked good and it felt right, so kind of just trust the player at that point when he says he’s good to go,” Hyde said.

Added catcher Adley Rutschman: “He obviously has a lot of experience, and I trust him. I know that he knows his body better than anyone else.”

The severity of Kimbrel’s injury is not yet known, nor is whether he will end up on the injured list. He was still being evaluated in the training room during postgame media availability in the Orioles’ clubhouse.

Baltimore hopes to avoid another big hole at the back of its bullpen. The club is already without All-Star closer Félix Bautista for the entire season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, which is why the O’s signed Kimbrel to a one-year deal worth a guaranteed $13 million.

Until the past three days, the 15-year MLB veteran had mostly been lights out. Kimbrel blew a save chance in his Orioles debut on April 1, but in that case he allowed only one run during a Royals rally that featured soft contact and a pair of stolen bases.

From April 5 to this past Wednesday, Kimbrel yielded one unearned run in 10 innings over a 10-outing span in which he recorded seven saves -- boosting his career total to 424, tied for sixth most in MLB history.

Kimbrel’s hot streak ended Friday, when he allowed one run on two hits and three walks in one-third of an inning, blowing a save in Baltimore’s eventual 3-2, 10-inning loss to Oakland.

This was only the third time in Kimbrel’s long career that he’s blown back-to-back save opportunities. He also did so for the White Sox on Sept. 11-12, 2021, then again for the Phillies on Sept. 22 and Sept. 26 of last season.

“Craig’s a phenomenal pitcher, obviously, and he’s going to bounce back,” said Rutschman, who hit one of the Orioles’ three homers on Sunday. “We’ve got no worries.”

Baltimore entered the ninth with a 6-5 lead thanks to home runs by Rutschman, Ryan Mountcastle and Ramón Urías. The O’s lead the Majors with 44 homers, their most through 27 games in franchise history.

It was the Orioles’ MLB-high ninth three-homer performance this year, and only the second of those in which they lost.

Moving forward, Baltimore needs its relief corps to perform at a higher level to match the play of its offense. The O’s have a 4.02 bullpen ERA that ranks 18th in MLB and 10th in the AL.

The pitching staff is soon getting reinforcements, though. Left-hander Cionel Pérez (right oblique strain) has made two rehab appearances for Triple-A Norfolk and is nearing a return to the Orioles’ bullpen.

Kyle Bradish (right UCL sprain) is expected to rejoin Baltimore’s rotation this week, as could John Means (left forearm strain). That might shift right-hander Albert Suárez (who allowed four runs in four innings on Sunday) to the bullpen, as well as possibly lefty Cole Irvin.

So even if the ‘pen is without Kimbrel for a bit, Hyde remains optimistic in his group of arms.

“It’s part of the game, so other guys are going to have to step up, and we need to pitch well out of the bullpen. Just need a next-guy-up type of mentality,” Hyde said. “I mean, I don’t know what the timetable is with Craig, if any at all. We’ll see.

“I think we’ve been playing pretty good baseball, we just had a couple unfortunate endings here this series, had a chance to win all three games. Move onto tomorrow.”