Kimbrel can turn Cubs bullpen into playoff weapon


Craig Kimbrel’s fastball zipped past a swigging Jose Abreu. The scoreboard strip looming above home pate from Guaranteed Rate Field’s upper deck lit up with the pitch velocity: 99 mph.

Strike three.

Kimbrel’s latest outing, a 1-2-3 inning in the Cubs’ 9-5 loss to the White Sox on Saturday, solidified a promising trend for the Cubs. The reliever is at his best just in time for the playoffs.

“The arc of his season is putting him in a really good place to be a dominant guy in October,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said.

After losing the title of closer as he worked through mechanical issues early in the season, Kimbrel finished the regular season with three straight hitless outings. He hasn’t issued a walk all month.

Asked last week if he was anxious to show that he was back to himself on the playoff’s national, Kimbrel kept his answer short and sweet.

“I hope I get my opportunity, that’s all I can say,” he said.

Not only is he now in line for that opportunity, but Kimbrel has the chance to take the Cubs’ rotation, which has been a strength over the past month, and turn it into an absolute weapon in the postseason.

Kimbrel’s struggles in Chicago are well-documented. He went from his seventh All-Star season in 2018 with the Red Sox, to a rocky and injury-tinged 2019, his first year with the Cubs.

Kimbrel’s first two outings this season revealed urgent mechanical issues. By mid-August his adjustments yielded obvious results. He strung together five straight outings without a hit. But his progress wasn’t entirely linear. Kimbrel recorded his first blown save at Cincinnati on Aug. 29, after issuing three walks in 2/3 of an inning.  

“Not easy to work though those issues midseason,” Epstein said, “as a guy who’s not used to struggling and is used to having one role and doing it at an elite level. He’s been flexible this year and he’s really found himself.”

When Kimbrel’s role became flexible, veteran Jeremy Jeffress emerged as the Cubs’ most consistent lock-down late-inning reliver. Younger members of the staff -- Duane Underwood Jr., Jason Adam and Rowan Wick (who is now on the IL with a left oblique strain) -- eventually proved themselves reliable in high-leverage saturations.

So, Kimbrel’s strides coincided with the Cubs bullpen’s development. In the month of September, Cubs relievers combined for the second-best ERA (2.96) in MLB, behind only the Rays.

In Kimbrel’s final outing of the season, he put the finishing touches on his comeback. His four-seam fastball had averaged about 96-97 mph for much of the year. But against the White Sox Saturday, he touched 99 mph against all three batters he faced.

“He’s got good stuff,” Cubs manager David Ross said, unfazed. “He looks like he’s ready to help us navigate this postseason.”

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