Craig Kimbrel’s club-record streak of 10 consecutive relief appearances with at least two strikeouts came to an end Saturday night, but he pushed both his scoreless and walkless streaks to five games in notching his second save of the season. It came after Jason Heyward cracked the game open with a three-run shot against Josh Hader, followed by an Ildemaro Vargas solo jack, but the leverage was still plenty high for a pitchers who’s struggled in those situations so far.
Right on cue, Kimbrel allowed singles to the first two batters he faced and all the exultation from the previous half-inning was put on hold. The second hit, by Jedd Gyorko, was particularly worrisome because it came on a fastball located low in the zone. Kimbrel needs to be in the upper reaches to keep that heater from being barreled up and make the curveball play that much better.
Knowing he had to buckle down, Kimbrel stayed high with four consecutive fastballs to Dan Vogelbach for his only strikeout of the evening. The erstwhile elite closer then went with six straight four-seamers to Ben Gamel, setting him up for a swing at a curve that produced a fielder’s choice and released most of the pressure that had built up.
One pitch later, Kimbrel went high and tight with a fastball to Orlando Arcia to get a liner to third that ended the game. It wasn’t the cleanest outing we’ve ever seen, but the continued lack of walks was at least as promising as Kimbrel touching 98 mph again. If David Ross can stop babying his would-be closer, which it appears is finally possible again, the Cubs have a lock-down trio of relievers capable of handling the latter third of games or just the really tight situations in earlier innings.
Jeremy Jeffress has become the de facto closer in Kimbrel’s absence and Rowan Wick is rounding into that Hader or Andrew Miller role that sees him facing the opponents’ best hitters even if it’s prior to the 9th. That was evident last Thursday when the stout stopper entered in the 7th to shut down the top of the Reds’ order on just eight pitches.
Going with Dan Winkler in the 8th was a bit questionable, as was using Wick for a second inning Friday night, but pobody’s nerfect. Little hiccups aside, Ross now has a trio of relievers he can deploy seemingly at will in the late innings. That said, it’s still probably best if the Cubs can once again trust Kimbrel to be the same lights-out closer he once was.
That’s got nothing to do with his salary or pedigree, it’s just a matter of having set roles and allowing the men in question to better understand how they’re going to be used. Just like having a static lineup can make hitters more comfortable and productive, knowing when he’s most likely to pitch helps a reliever to establish a routine. Having Kimbrel in the 9th, Jeffress in the 8th, and Wick in the highest leverage inning prior to that makes the Cubs a much more formidable team come playoff time.
In the meantime, fans are probably just happy to see Kimbrel throwing gas and limiting the free passes no matter what the inning or situation.