Whether we’ll ever arrive at a time during pandemic baseball to let down our guards long enough to dream on the entirety of a 60-game season and playoffs, the Cubs will be hard pressed to let down their guards when it comes to holding leads late with a new-look bullpen and no margin for error in getting it right.
“Definitely each game’s going to be bigger, each lead change is going to be bigger in 60 games,” said veteran closer Craig Kimbrel — whose performance could be the bellwether for the Cubs fortunes like no other closer in any other season ever has.
“There’s going to be no such thing as a losing streak,” Kimbrel said. “If you’re going to want to be in it at the end, you’re going to have to stay consistent and try not to get in a funk.”
Bullpens already are considered the most inherently volatile position areas in baseball in any season. In a 60-gamer?
“It’s extremely important,” said Cubs manager David Ross, one of Kimbrel’s catchers in Atlanta when the right-hander broke into the majors 10 years ago. “Every aspect of this game is going to be highlighted in a 60-game sprint, and that’s definitely going to be a big part of it.”
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Kimbrel, 32, is a seven-time All-Star, who signed a three-year $43 million deal as a free agent early last season and then struggled down the stretch for the Cubs — allowing a career-high nine home runs in just 23 appearances.
He became a Twitter punchline when he gave up a homer to teammate Willson Contreras in a simulated game Tuesday, but Kimbrel said he was just trying to throw strikes and working on things — like the changeup Contreras hit.
The reality is Tuesday meant next to nothing when imagining Kimbrel’s performance once a season were to start July 24.
But last September — when he gave up four homers in three outings that included a 10th-inning loss and blown save in another loss in the span of three days against the Cardinals — is another matter.
If he starts 2020 like he finished 2019, the Cubs’ short season might be finished before it starts.
Will he recover the tick or two off his once upper-90s fastball to once again get away with location mistakes? Will his breaking ball and developing changeup become bigger weapons to make the fastball look more powerful? Will his location be good enough to make either less of an issue?
“I think he’s got a few things still to iron out, just talking to him, for him to feel comfortable,” Ross said. “And he knows some of his keys, he’s not quite there yet. It’s like any other pitcher. His is heightened by who he is, but every pitcher is looking at the data afterwards, looking at the high-speed cameras, seeing where the hand positioning is, comparing it to the success they’ve had in the past and trying to make small adjustments and get the action that they expect on the baseball.”
The theme often repeated by team officials since last year’s struggles was that Kimbrel suffered from not having a normal spring training last year because of the extended free agency that took his competitive debut into June.
Fast-forward to 2020 and … uh-oh.
But Kimbrel said last year’s experience is “definitely helpful” as he navigates the strangest season anybody in the game has experienced.
Any emotional downside associated with this season’s unusual format might come from the lack of fans in the stands and the natural adrenaline high that brings to the ninth inning with a slim lead.
“It’d be a lot nicer if there was [a crowd],” he said. “I’m just going to have to figure out a way to do it.
“I’ve just got to mentally go to a place and physically be ready to go out there and do what I’ve always done.”
The fact is his success is more likely to simply come down to whatever he gets out of that All-Star fastball — whether through location, sheer velocity or what he can make it look like off his other stuff.
“Obviously, when the fastball’s located and at the velocity you want it, things are great,” he said. “But I think with my offspeed pitches, the better I can control those, the better it makes my fastball.
“So I would honestly say controlling the curveball in the zone and keeping it down is only going to make my fastball play better. That’s really my mindset on that.”
He and the Cubs have two weeks to get it right. Because once the season starts so does the playoff chase — with every ninth- and 10th-inning home run as costly as the last time he took the mound for the Cubs when it counted.
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