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The Cubs couldn’t have hoped for a better start from Craig Kimbrel

3 years agoTony Andracki

The Cubs couldn’t have hoped for a better opening series from their All-Star closer.

Craig Kimbrel has been perfect in his first 2 appearances on the young season, striking out 5 of the 6 batters he faced. He pitched the 9th inning of a non-save situation Saturday and then shut the door in a 1-run game Sunday afternoon.

Entering this spring, there were some concerns surrounding Kimbrel from the outside but internally, the Cubs have remained steadfast that he could return to the closer he was before 2019.

Two games might be a small sample size to judge Kimbrel on this season, but it actually represents a trend dating back to last year. In his last 10 regular-season appearances, he has not allowed a run or walked a batter and has 18 strikeouts in 9.1 innings.

It’s also how Kimbrel has run through the last 2 innings. He caught all three Pirates looking Saturday and filled up the zone again Sunday. He has touched 97 mph with his fastball and the breaking ball has had late life to keep hitters off balance.

“My first 2 appearances have been good,” he said. “I’ve successfully hit my spots and executed pitches how I wanted to. The life and movement on my pitches have definitely been there and with that, I’ve had some success.”

A locked-in Kimbrel has a serious trickle-down effect on the rest of the team. David Ross can line up his bullpen differently knowing his dominant closer is settled in and it gives the rest of the clubhouse a jolt of confidence even in tight games.

“His presence on the mound, throwing strikes, being really aggressive with the heater — that’s Craig Kimbrel,” Ian Happ said. “He’s one of the best to ever do it. And we have all the confidence in the world in him.”

Last year, Kimbrel admitted he felt rushed with only a few weeks in summer camp to get ready for the shortened season. He struggled in his first few appearances, allowing 7 runs on 5 walks and 6 hits.

But he sorted things out from there and allowed a run in only 1 of his final 14 outings from mid-August on while striking out 26 of the 49 batters he faced.

Ross has known Kimbrel since the closer was a rookie in Atlanta and sees the right-hander hitting all the right keys so far.

“The body of work total last year was pretty good after he identified some things,” Ross said. “He’s a really good pitcher in a really good place right now.”

Kimbrel credits a lot of that to a normal spring training runway for the first time since 2018. Obviously the pandemic affected everybody last season but in 2019, he didn’t sign until the middle of the summer and rushed to get ready as quickly as possible.

With the six-week timeline this spring that he is accustomed to, Kimbrel was able to sort through his mechanics and get everything in line before the games started to count.

“I had an opportunity to get into games and work on things without the runs mattering and being more concerned on getting out there and executing what I was trying to do gameplan-wise each and every time instead of worrying about how many runs are getting across the plate,” Kimbrel said. “That was definitely helpful.

“As we saw at the start of spring training, [I] gave up some runs, gave up hits and as we went, I was able to throw more strikes and miss more bats. It was a good six weeks and we’ve gotten off to a pretty good start so far.”

It also helps that Kimbrel is no longer pitching in an eerie stadium with empty seats. For a closer who thrives on adrenaline and energy of a crowd, he loves having fans back in the stands — even if capacity is still only 25%.

“The last two days, I’ve found myself on the mound with two outs and the crowd gets loud and it’s like, ‘man, this is what I’ve missed. This is great,'” he said. “Just having a little bit of something was fun and it was exciting and ready to do it again.”

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