The guitar riff from Guns N Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine,” serenated the empty stands of Wrigley Field, and Craig Kimbrel emerged from the bullpen Tuesday night, for the first time in days.
“Craig’s been making some strides in the bullpen,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “And I wanted to get him some work, hopefully with the lead, and we were able to do that tonight.”
In what turned into a 5-4 win against the Royals, it was clear that Kimbrel still had work to do. The seven-time All-Star closer has been battling what Ross and the Cubs front office have identified as mechanical issues. After walking four in his first outing and giving up two home runs in his second, Kimbrel has been working behind the scenes. He did not appear in any of the Cubs’ past three games, all of which were decided by two runs or less
“He hasn’t been through this much before but we’re proud of the way he’s handling it,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said before Tuesday’s game. “He’s tackling it head on, putting in a ton of work in side sessions and poring over video and data and mechanical analysis to get the right answers so he can get the right feel and make the right adjustments.
“Rossy’s got his back and he’s not going to turn his back on him while he goes through this. He’s going to get the ball, he’s going try to pick the right situations for him as he works through these adjustments.”
Ross said he didn’t pre-schedule Kimbrel’s save opportunity Tuesday. But by the eighth inning, when the Cubs had a two-run lead, Kimbrel was warming up in the bullpen and set to pitch the next inning. Then Willson Contreras hit a solo homer to give Kimbrel a three-run cushion.
“We really need Craig Kimbrel to be a big part of this bullpen,” Ross said. “And we have to throw him, we have to get him innings and continue to judge where he’s at according to what the hitters do.”
The first hitter Kimbrel faced was Salvador Pérez. He hit a sharp ground ball into left field. Then he struck out Franchy Cordero, firing a high fastball by him for strike three. So far, an improvement.
Then Adalberto Mondesi stepped up to the plate. He hit a line drive so hard off the ivy that the ball bounced off the right field wall. Mondesi cruised into second base and Pérez into third.
Ross headed to the mound to pull Kimbrel.
“His misses right now are into a good spot for (Alex) Gordon,” Ross said, “and I just didn’t see that playing out for that benefit. I liked the matchup with Kyle Ryan better, so I had to make that decision.”
Ryan got Gordon to ground out in two pitches and allowed an RBI single. Both of the runs Ryan inherited from Kimbrel scored. Ryan needed a diving stop by third baseman Kris Bryant to get the save. He got just that.
Kimbrel has yet to blow a save this season, but he’s come close.
“Craig is elite at what he does and has tremendous mentally toughness,” Epstein said. “He is not someone to back down from a challenge, so this is a new type of challenge for him.”