Last But Not Leashed: Trusting Craig Kimbrel to ‘Knock off Some Rust’ Could Come Back to Bite Cubs

The fresh-faced Craig Kimbrel who took the mound in Cincinnati Monday evening with a three-run lead looked nothing at all like the crimson-bearded man known affectionately as Dirty Craig. Until he started pitching, that is. His effort was dirty all right, both in terms of the baseballs he spiked all over the place and the untenable situation he was forced to turn over to Jeremy Jeffress.

Walk. Groundout. Walk. Walk. HBP. Walk. Only 13 of the 34 pitches Kimbrel needed to get through six batters went for strikes, and only twice did he throw consecutive strikes. Interestingly enough, the first two pitches he threw were taken by Nick Castellanos for called strikes. That means only 11 of the next 32 were in the zone or swung at.

But hey, at least he didn’t give up any homers.

As Sarah Langs pointed out on Twitter, Kimbrel became the first pitcher to issue four-plus walks and a hit by pitch while recording one out or less since April 28, 2011. The man on the mound nine years ago: Ryan Dempster, also of the Cubs, whose Off the Mound show for Marquee Sports Network sounds like good advice for David Ross to apply to his closer.

“I’m not trying to make excuses for anybody,” Ross told reporters after the game. “But, we’ve got to give a little bit of leash. This is a really unique situation that we’re dealing with.”

Seems to me that letting Kimbrel stay in the game after walking the bases loaded with one out was plenty of leash. Not going to get him after he hit Freddy Galvis to bring in a run and close the gap to two was letting go of the handle. Watching him walk in yet another run should have prompted the manager to tape “Lost Closer” posters to every utility pole in downtown Cincinnati.

“He hadn’t had work in six days,” Ross explained. “Part of that is just he’s got to knock off some rust and then continue to trust his stuff.”

As difficult as it is to buy the notion that there’s even time to knock off any rust when the season is so short, there is a little merit to what Ross is saying. Most notably, Kimbrel’s fastball almost kissed 98 mph and averaged 96.3 mph, slightly higher than he registered last season well above what he was flashing in exhibition games. Even though it’s still a full two mph down from 2018, you can live with 96 and the potential for that to improve as he loosens up.

On the other hand, it seemed as though Kimbrel had no idea where either his fastball or his curveball were going and he wasn’t about to bust out that changeup we’d heard about earlier. That could be a sign of overthrowing, digging deep for extra velocity and losing all semblance of control in the process. But was that a matter of being amped up for his first real appearance since last September or was he really pushing past effective max effort in a vain attempt to recapture what he’s lost to time?

That’s the question Ross has to answer if he wants to reverse what is already an alarming trend for his bullpen at this early juncture. While it’s easy to advise against overreaction so early in the season, it’s not like we’re talking about new issues for either Kimbrel or the ‘pen as a whole. They’re new for the rookie manager, though, so maybe a little more faith and patience makes sense.

“[He] just didn’t trust his fastball enough tonight, for me,” Ross said. “I think he can trust that a little more. It was electric. Get him back to being who he is. I want him to trust himself.”

As much as I want to believe that Kimbrel can get back to something resembling his old self, beard or no, I’m not willing to buy what Ross is selling here. I will, however, rent it for another appearance to see whether I can get used to it. But when it comes to the benefit of the doubt and giving the closer a little more play in the leash beyond that, I don’t see how it can happen.

Anything other than a lights-out performance, which then needs to be followed by more similar appearances, should be grounds for moving Kimbrel to lower-leverage situations. The season’s too short and Cubs’ bullpen too untested and erratic to close games with a guy who can’t throw strikes. If nothing else, my blood pressure can’t handle more of what we saw Monday night.

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