Tony Andracki

Craig Kimbrel looks to be finding his chill-inducing form again for Cubs

Craig Kimbrel looks to be finding his chill-inducing form again for Cubs

Craig Kimbrel is once again starting to look like the lockdown closer everybody expected him to be.

And it couldn't come at a more perfect time for the Cubs.

Kimbrel was activated off the injured list last weekend following a bout of right knee inflammation and after allowing a solo homer in a blowout Sunday, he picked up back-to-back saves Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Cubs have not wanted to push Kimbrel all season and that's especially the case when he's fresh off the IL. So after working consecutive nights, Joe Maddon turned to Kyle Ryan and Rowan Wick to pitch the ninth inning of Thursday's 1-0 nail-biter.

The 31-year-old Kimbrel tossed two perfect innings against the Giants in the series, striking out half the batters he faced and in the process, took over the team lead for saves on the season from Pedro Strop.

Kimbrel has now gone 11-for-13 in save situations despite a 5.28 ERA and 1.43 WHIP in 15.1 innings and the pair of appearances at Wrigley Field this week was as encouraging as it gets.

"He looked really good [Wednesday] night - possibly the best I've seen him," Maddon said. "The fastball was that good; the curveball was that good."

The Cubs signed Kimbrel to a three-year, $43 million deal in June to help shore up the back end of the bullpen, but they still are tied for the MLB lead with 24 blown saves.

That's been a byproduct of multiple late meltdowns on the road, which includes a couple of issues in Pennsylvania on the most recent trip when Kimbrel was on the shelf. But he's also been a part of that problem, serving up a pair of homers July 27 in Milwaukee and also taking the loss July 3 in Pittsburgh to blow late leads.

Then again, nobody's perfect and Kimbrel - who is on a Hall of Fame trajectory with 344 saves to his name and a career 2.00 ERA - hasn't blown a save in nearly a month now. 

Fans aren't the only ones who get caught up in the moment when "Sweet Child O' Mine" starts blaring over the Wrigley loudspeakers.

"It's Craig Kimbrel. You can't help but just watch him run in from the bullpen every time and get chills," Anthony Rizzo said. "I'm fortunate enough to play with him and - in my opinion - another Hall of Fame closer in [Aroldis] Chapman. It's fun to see these guys just come out."

Kimbrel hasn't exactly had a normal year, missing spring training and the first two months of the season while in a free agency stalemate with the rest of the league. So it's understandable there would be a bit of a build-up period as he find his form again.

When he signed, the Cubs felt they were addressing their biggest weakness and elongating the bullpen. 

They need him to be that right now in a tight divisional race, especially as we move into September and the Cubs playing their best baseball of the season. 

Thursday's win over the Giants ensured the first winning streak of at least five games since April 27-May 5, when Kimbrel was still throwing bullpens to his buddy on his Alabama farm.

The Cubs haven't had much time this season with their bullpen truly at full strength, but it looks to be the case at the moment, as Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler and Pedro Strop are all off the injured list and Kimbrel is starting to get locked in. The emergence of Wick and Ryan have been huge and Maddon is still finding the best spots to work the newest additions - David Phelps and Derek Holland - into the mix.

A lights-out Kimbrel would make things so much easier for the Cubs and their fans, reducing the sales of Rolaids in every corner of Chicago.

"He brings a lot of stability to our bullpen," Phelps said. "We got a lot of really talented arms out there and I think as this season continues to progress, our ability to get the ball to Craig is gonna really be what determines whether we win a lot of games or not. 

"Being on the other side for a number of years, seeing him come in and close things out, we know what to expect when he takes the ball. Anytime we see him running out with the lead in the ninth, it's a good feeling. He has the ability to come in and just dominate. I think that's what we're starting to see now that he's getting more comfortable out there - the stuff's back to what it is. 

"He's fun to watch, whether he's just playing catch or throwing off a mound or throwing in a game - just watch the way the ball comes out of his hand. It really is a treat to watch him get after it."

The under-the-radar ways in which Nicholas Castellanos has helped lift Cubs

The under-the-radar ways in which Nicholas Castellanos has helped lift Cubs

Nicholas Castellanos at-bats have turned into must-see TV for Cubs fans already.

Nobody could've predicted he'd have this hot of a start to his Chicago career when the Cubs traded for him at the 11th hour of the deadline last month.

Theo Epstein's front office and Joe Maddon's clubhouse expected a professional hitter, but a .392 average and 1.214 OPS in his first three weeks is beyond anybody's wildest dreams. More than half of his games in a Cubs uniform (10) have been of the multi-hit variety.

He's also giving his team early leads on a seemingly regular basis. Wednesday night, he became the first player in Cubs history to hit a first-inning home run in three straight games when he took Dereck Rodriguez deep for a two-run shot.

But even beyond the box score, Castellanos is having a huge impact. 

It isn't just the passion, though that is palpable on a nightly basis:

Kris Bryant — who hit the homer that Castellanos is celebrating in that highlight — joked he thought the Cubs outfielder actually hurt himself and that's why he was jumping around.

"I saw that, I thought he, like, sprained his ankle or something and he was just jumping 'cause it hurt," Bryant laughed.

But that energy has been infectious for this club, from his "every day is Opening Day" mentality to his hustle. 

In Wednesday night's wild 12-11 victory over the Giants, Castellanos beat out an infield hit — his fourth knock of the contest — which set the stage for Bryant's heroics.

"He's been really, really good for us. He beat that out hustling down the line," Bryant said. "If that didn't happen, who knows what sequence of pitches I would've got. It could've changed the whole sequence. It could've changed the whole inning, so a lot of credit to him."

On two instances in that game, the other two Cubs outfielders (Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward), each beat out the backside of a double play ball, with Schwarber's directly leading to an important run in the sixth inning.

"That's been going on a lot lately," Maddon said of the hustle plays.

That can't all be tied to Castellanos. Schwarber hustled out a key grounder in a game in Milwaukee late last month just a few days before Castellanos was acquired and Bryant's hustle down the first-base line has been a well known staple of his game from the moment the Cubs drafted him.

But it certainly never hurts to add another such high-energy guy into the lineup, and Castellanos has been like that from Day 1. 

Maddon said he went to Heyward and Schwarber during the course of Wednesday's game to let them know he recognized their effort and appreciated it. The manager whose only rule is to "Respect 90" tries to instill that mindset on Little Leaguers and kids — "It doesn't take any talent to do that."

"It leads to a lot of runs," Maddon said. "...That's the kind of stuff that goes unnoticed. All good. You win 1-run games because of that, even if it's 12-11. We've been doing that a lot and I really appreciate it."

Then there's the trickle-down effect of what Castellanos' arrival has done for the Cubs lineup. 

"When you have the type of guy that is capable like Castellanos is to change a game from an at-bat, that's huge," Cole Hamels said. "He seems to be on second base all the time, so that helps out, turning the lineup over, getting runs in and really giving KB and [Anthony] Rizzo something to drive in. That's great for us to be able to have that.

"Plus, it makes the lineup deeper. As a starting pitcher, when you see the type of lineup we're putting out there, that's a tough lineup. It doesn't make things easy at all. ... The energy he's bringing has been outstanding. In the clubhouse, he's fit right in."

Imagine how deep the lineup will look like with Willson Contreras returns, as the All-Star catcher has been doing strengthening exercises on his injured hamstring the last couple days.

Not only does Castellanos' on-base and extra-base hit prowess put him in scoring position for the heart of the Cubs lineup, but hitting directly in front of Bryant can have a positive effect on the looks the former MVP gets before he even steps into the box.

"We are very similar hitters," Bryant said. "Pretty close to the same swings, too, so I get a lot of information from his at-bats and he works a lot of counts. Just a really professional hitter and he's so underrated. He's definitely making a name here for himself and we couldn't be happier."

It's impossible to quantify the little things Castellanos does or how much different the Cubs would look without him right now, but the calls to extend him from fans and even media have begun to pick up steam and it's understandable why.

'Season-defining win'? Cubs are here for it

'Season-defining win'? Cubs are here for it

Smiling came easy for Anthony Rizzo as he stood at his locker and fielded questions in a robin-egg blue T-shirt that read: "positive vibes."

This was roughly a half-hour after he went through the high-five line telling all his teammates the 12-11 victory was a "season-defining win" for the Cubs.

Who knows if it will really be that big of a "W" for this ballclub in the midst of what has been an up-and-down season to this point, but there has certainly been no shortage of positive vibes around the clubhouse lately.

One thing's for certain: The Cubs will wake up Thursday morning in sole possession of first place again as the Cardinals lost to the Brewers in a rain-shortened game in St. Louis.

Yu Darvish and the Cubs bullpen squandered a 6-2 lead and then a 10-9 lead. Yet the offense picked up the slack, smacking 14 hits, including Kris Bryant's game-winning two-run blast in the bottom of the eighth inning.

"We haven't won a game like that really all year, I don't think," Rizzo said. "They scored 9 runs in the fifth to seventh innings. Teams don't really win when that happens. Just a good, hard-fought, never-quit win."

Rizzo is right: The Cubs haven't won a game in which they allowed at least 11 runs since Sept. 2, 2017 when they beat the Braves 14-12.

The Cubs have claimed 14 of 17 games at home since the All-Star Break and are now 43-19 at Wrigley Field this season - a winning percentage approaching .700 to combat the .390 winning percentage on the road.

So is it a season-defining victory?

"That's what Rizz told me," Bryant said. "We were high-fiving there and Rizz told me this is a season-defining win. I mean, I can't disagree with him. It's one of those games where you don't feel like you're gonna win just because you take a lead and then you're giving it back, but we came out on top. 

"Definitely some good momentum. We're playing good at home here, obviously and just gotta roll with the records at home and on the road."

Early on, it looked to be a night where the Cubs would cruise to victory behind Darvish, who came into the game red-hot and had settled into a rhythm after serving up a two-run shot to the third hitter of the game.

But that wasn't the case, as Darvish served up four homers overall and Derek Holland and Tyler Chatwood combined to allow 4 runs while notching just two outs as the first arms out of the bullpen.

Before the game, Joe Maddon talked again about how he felt like the only way the Cubs would be able to pull away in a tight NL Central race would be if the offense got into a groove and for one day at least, they were certainly firing on all cylinders.

The only starter who didn't reach base safely at least twice was Kyle Schwarber, and he drove in 3 runs on a homer and a groundout in which he hustled down the line to avoid a double play. Darvish even chipped in with an RBI single in the second inning.

Yes, it was a good win. Yes, the Cubs can go to sleep feeling content and wake up feeling hopeful.

But the only way this becomes a "season-defining win" is if the next five weeks play out like they hope. There have been several wins before Wednesday that seemed like they could propel the Cubs - including the finale in Cincinnati on the last road trip where Bryant once again came through with a clutch late homer. And every time, the team failed to keep the good times rolling for an extended period.

This is all a moot point if the Cubs come out and look flat this weekend or fail to carry any momentum onto the road.

"We'll find out," said Maddon, who has been in this game for nearly four decades. "I mean, I've been involved in those seminal moments and all of a sudden, things switch. 

"I'll tell you one thing though - I liked the method at the plate. Nobody was grinding sawdust; everybody was up there nice and chill and were getting good hacks on good pitches. ... I liked that. That's what we need to get to that point."