Kimbrel enters to boos, leaves to cheers in bounceback inning

October 24th, 2023

PHILADELPHIA -- The lights dimmed. The bullpen door opened. "Welcome to the Jungle" started to blare over the sound system as the lights flashed throughout Citizens Bank Park.

But for the first time since Craig Kimbrel's new entrance was unveiled in early August, he was entering the game in nothing more than a mop-up role.

With the Phillies trailing by four against the D-backs in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, manager Rob Thomson called on Kimbrel to handle the top of the eighth inning in an eventual 5-1 loss that evened the series at 3-3.

It was exactly the type of situation that Thomson had been seeking for Kimbrel, who took consecutive losses in Games 3 and 4 in Arizona. Kimbrel allowed four runs on five hits and two walks while recording only three outs in those two outings.

Whether it was in response to those outings or the extravagant entrance amid a disappointing team performance in a potential NL pennant-clinching game, the 45,473 Philadelphia fans made their displeasure known as Kimbrel trotted in from the center-field bullpen.

D-backs designated hitter Tommy Pham gave Kimbrel an equally unfriendly welcome, roping a 105.1 mph liner to right-center field -- though center fielder Johan Rojas robbed him of a hit with a diving catch.

Kimbrel then worked the edges of the zone to strike out Lourdes Gurriel Jr. looking before walking Alek Thomas on five pitches. After Thomas stole second, Kimbrel escaped the inning by getting Evan Longoria to swing through a 3-2 curveball just below the knees.

After entering to a chorus of boos, Kimbrel walked off the mound to cheers.

"I thought he was better," Thomson said. " ... I thought he had a little bit more rhythm, and he was powering the ball through the zone. He had a couple yanks, but I thought he was better."

It was certainly a step in the right direction, though it's uncertain whether that one outing will immediately put Kimbrel back on the high-leverage map.

"I don't know how we're going to use him moving forward," Thomson said. "It depends on the game state."

For Tuesday’s Game 7, the Phillies are likely to rely on left-handers José Alvarado and Matt Strahm and right-handers Jeff Hoffman and Seranthony Domínguez in high-leverage spots. Zack Wheeler, who started Game 5 in Phoenix on Saturday, is also expected to be available out of the bullpen, much like when Ranger Suárez locked down the save against the Padres in Game 5 of the 2022 NLCS after starting Game 3 of that series.

But with a winner-take-all Game 7 looming, the Phillies are going to be in “all hands on deck” mode. If, and how, that includes Kimbrel, who posted a 3.26 ERA and recorded 23 of his 417 career saves during the regular season, remains to be seen.

“I trust Craig, and we wouldn't be sitting here probably if we didn't have him, especially when Alvarado was down for that time,” Thomson said. “So I think the stuff is still there. It's just he's got to throw strikes and power the ball through the zone.”

Kimbrel did that in the eighth inning Monday, albeit in a much lower-leverage role than he’s accustomed to.

"That's all we're ever trying to do, just get the three outs we're called on for,” Hoffman said. “Craig is, obviously, one of the best to ever do it -- and that's why. He prepared for this outing the same way he would any other outing, and then he goes out and gets the job done.

“That's how we all need to treat every outing.”