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Free and easy: Craig Kimbrel feels like he’s rounding into form as season approaches

9 months agoTony Andracki

MESA, Ariz. — The radar gun flashed 98 mph and a yellow “0” lit up in the inning column on the Sloan Park scoreboard as Craig Kimbrel walked off the mound.

Sure, it’s spring training and these stats don’t count, but it was still a day of important checkpoints for the Cubs closer.

It’s been three years since he last pitched in a spring training game on March 20 or later. The pandemic shut down baseball last spring and he didn’t sign with the Cubs until the middle of the 2019 regular season.

This normal spring training may make all the difference for Kimbrel.

“I feel very comfortable where I am right now less than two weeks away from the season starting,” Kimbrel said. “Last year with the way things were — going home and then coming back for the summer camp, I think a lot of us felt rushed to get back and ready to go in the short period of time that we had before games started.

“I don’t have that feeling this year. I feel nice and relaxed and it’s what I’m used to — it’s what a lot of us are used to. I think you’re seeing that from a lot of players.”

For the first nine years of his big-league career, Kimbrel was used to having six weeks to get up to speed and go at his own pace throughout spring training. But the last two summers, he had to get built up for the season as quickly as possible. That meant fewer outings and less time to work through any mechanical blips.

That can have an effect, even on a 32-year-old closer who will have a strong case for the Hall of Fame when his career is over.

That sense of comfort and relaxation might be showing up on the field for Kimbrel right now. After a shaky start to the spring, he has turned in back-to-back scoreless appearances while seeing an uptick in velocity. On Saturday, his fastball also displayed the rising quality that has played such a huge role in his success over the years.

A big key for Kimbrel has been not overthrowing or rushing and staying relaxed on the mound. The length of spring training has helped, as he knew he had time to settle in and recover.

“I didn’t want to get upset about my first couple [outings] and then go out there and try and throw as hard as I can,” Kimbrel said. “That wouldn’t have been productive, so I was able take it for what it was and learn from the first couple outings. It seems like things have been moving along pretty well.

“When you start trying to do too much and put too much effort into it, you lose life. [Saturday], my ball had some zip on it, had a little bit more life than it’s had so far this spring training. You can be nice and smooth and easy and try not to do too much and everything works out.”

David Ross saw the same thing in Saturday’s outing.

The Cubs manager has known Kimbrel since their days in Atlanta together (Ross actually caught Kimbrel’s MLB debut in 2010) and has talked with the closer this spring about some cues when Kimbrel may be getting out of rhythm or rushing.

“I said, ‘a couple 98s up there’ and that shocked him,” Ross said after Saturday’s outing. “That tells me he’s not even letting it go yet or maybe he’s relaxed, free and easy. He’s cleaner.

“We’ve talked about that a lot of the times — when he tries to muscle it up there, it’s just tight muscles or slow muscles. So the fact that he felt good and didn’t even know the velocity stood out to me.”

To contend for another NL Central title or make a deep run in the playoffs, the Cubs are going to need their closer to be at the top of his game.

A normal runway in spring training might be just what Kimbrel needs to make that happen.

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