Craig Kimbrel gives Cubs closer controversy to distract from season on brink

Craig Kimbrel gives Cubs closer controversy to distract from season on brink

That didn’t take long.

One week and two appearances into the season, Craig Kimbrel has pitched his way out of the Cubs’ closer role, underscoring the bullpen turmoil that figures to be a storyline as long as this scheduled 60-game season lasts.

Not that it’s even a question worth answering after a four-walk, hit-batter performance in his first appearance and the back-to-back homers he allowed in the second on Friday night.

“As far as [if] Craig’s the closer?” manager David Ross said Saturday during a valiant effort to sidestep. “I’m in the middle of conversations with Craig. We’ll have those with him first before I talk to you guys. …We’ll see where his arm’s at today, see if he’s available today, and then we’ll go from there.”

And then go somewhere else with a close lead in the ninth.

It’s not exactly clear where that might be in an 11-man bullpen that is the worst-performing group in the majors, with contributions toward that distinction from almost every Cubs reliever.

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But at least the Cubs are providing the normalcy of classic barstool baseball debate and talk-radio outrage to help keep minds off the pandemic and COVID-19 threats from the Marlins and Cardinals that already have the 60-game season on the brink.

Kimbrel hasn’t looked sharp since summer training camp began, though his much-discussed velocity was up to 97 and 98 mph Friday night — even if it was exceeded by Josh Bell’s and Colin Moran’s exit velocities on Pirates home runs leading off the ninth.

At least he was throwing strikes this time?

Ross talked about mechanical things Kimbrel is working on but suggested the mental side might be more important.

“Just a little bit of confidence, a little bit of success can make a lot of the problems go away,” Ross said. “We’re just trying to find him that right kind of work. Whether it’s watching video or having conversations, you try to continue to work through it.

“We need him to be good if we’re going to have a lot of success.”

And that’s the thing. If COVID-19 doesn’t defeat the league in 2020 first, the Cubs’ $43 million closer is probably going to have as big a say in how the Cubs finish as anybody on the roster.

For now, veteran Jeremy Jeffress, who escaped a bases-loaded jam Monday to clean up Kimbrel’s season-debut mess, should get the first shot to pick up the slack in the ninth until or unless Kimbrel is right enough to close again.

Ross said the Cubs don’t think so far that Kimbrel’s problems have anything to do with tipping pitches (his location in the opener might have rendered that moot even if it were true). And he said the velocity Kimbrel showed Friday is a “nice indicator that he feels good.”

“He’s working hard. He wants to be better — I can promise you that,” Ross said. “And he knows he needs to be better.”

So the next time the Cubs have a one-run lead in the ninth, does he get the ball, or maybe Jeffress?

“That’s a good question,” Ross said. “I appreciate you asking that. I’m not sure on that yet. I’ll get back to you on that.”


Why Cubs’ Alec Mills became first pitcher to hit since MLB added universal DH

Why Cubs’ Alec Mills became first pitcher to hit since MLB added universal DH

Thursday’s Cubs-Royals game was one-sided, with Kansas City taking an early lead and never looking back in a 13-2 victory. Despite the loss, the Cubs made some history in the ninth inning.

Cubs pitcher Alec Mills became the first hurler to have a plate appearance since Major League Baseball implemented a universal DH. 

“I told him to look intimidating and I think he did,” Cubs manager David Ross said with a smile after the game.

The Cubs forfeited the DH in their lineup in the seventh inning, when they moved Victor Caratini (Thursday’s starting DH) to first base and Ian Happ from first to right field among several innings worth of moves that emptied their bench.

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With the DH gone, reliever Dan Winkler entered the lineup in the seventh in place of Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward, a move Ross said postgame was to get Heyward off his feet. When that spot came up in the ninth, Ross sent Mills to the plate. He struck out looking, as Ross asked him not to swing.

“Alec was fine with going up there. I asked him not to swing,” Ross said. “Every part of my being knows that’s probably the wrong thing to do, is take the competitiveness out of a player. He’s been pitching so well for us; I don’t want anything dumb to happen in that type of game.”

Reds two-way player Michael Lorenzen is the only pitcher credited with entering a game on offense this season. He pinch ran on July 26.


Cubs quick takes: Tyler Chatwood rocked, Cubs rolled by Royals

Cubs quick takes: Tyler Chatwood rocked, Cubs rolled by Royals

Tyler Chatwood for closer? Um, hold that thought.

The bigger issue for the Cubs’ right-hander on Thursday night in Kansas City was that after two impressive starts to open the season, he took less than three innings to look like the rotation’s weak link.

That might sound harsh in a long season, but it’s not a long season. And the rotation was far and away the Cubs’ strength during a 10-2 start — including a six-game winning streak that went up in the smoke of Thursday’s blowout loss.

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Quick takes from that 13-2 loss:


How bad was the worst start of the season so far for the rotation?

The eight runs Chatwood (2-1) allowed not only exceeded the number of outs he recorded (seven) on this night, but also were twice as many as the rotation allowed total during the six-game winning streak — which included 39 2/3 innings by the starters.

"The stuff looks fine from the side," manager David Ross said. "Just one of those nights."

Chatwood didn’t walk a batter, but he was rocked for 11 hits worth of hard contact, including two-run homers by Whit Merrifield in the second and Maikel Franco in the third, and four doubles.

"I made good pitches; they hit them. I made bad pitches; they hit them," Chatwood said. "I think my stuff was all still there, maybe not as sharp as I wanted to be with the sinker. But I still feel good. I feel like I was attacking, trying to execute a game plan and gave up hits on good pitches and bad pitches."

Q and A?

A few hours before Chatwood took the mound, Jose Quintana took a big step closer to returning from his thumb injury to rejoin the rotation — using all his pitches in a 35-pitch, two-inning game simulation in South Bend.

Barring a setback, he’ll extend during another sim game Tuesday and could be scheduled for his return soon after that.

That’s where starts like Chatwood’s on Thursday start coming into play when the Cubs start looking for the right arm to move to the bullpen when Quintana is back.

"Coming into this game this guy was one of our best pitchers," Ross said of Chatwood. "This guy was dealing. You're gonna have some nights that things just don't go your way. They took advantage of the mistakes he made. That's just baseball."

Speaking of the bullpen…

The Cubs couldn’t have picked a worse day for a short-start clunker in the early part of the season.

Thursday was roster cut-down day, when the Cubs sent relievers Rex Brothers and Justin Steele to the alternate site in South Bend to reduce the overall roster to 28, which now includes nine relievers.

Four were used to cover nearly six innings of work Thursday, although only Duane Underwood Jr. (13 batters, 51 pitches) is certain to be unavailable when the Cubs open a three-game series in St. Louis on Friday. In fact, Ryan Tepera needed only 15 pitches in a four-up, four-down performance.

Perhaps most noteworthy was the mopup eighth that struggling closer Craig Kimbrel pitched, opening the inning by allowing a triple, walk and single before retiring the final three he faced.

Bats out of hell?

Even if Chatwood had kept it close, the Cubs’ winning streak might have been in jeopardy because of the way Royals starter Brad Keller looked in his return to the rotation after having tested positive for COVID-19 last month.

Last year’s Opening Day starter for the Royals made quick work of the Cubs in five innings pitched — striking out seven and limiting the Cubs to three singles and two walks.

By the fifth, the Cubs started pulling the regulars from the lineup with the score 9-0.

By the end of the two-run ninth, Cubs pitcher Alec Mills took a turn as a pinch-hitter.

Where they stand 

With the loss, the Cubs' record drops to 10-3. But the Twins, who shared the best record in the league with the Cubs, also lost on Thursday. (The Marlins are 6-1).

On deck

The Cubs head to St. Louis for a three-game series. The Cardinals are set to return to the field after 13 players and staff members tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the postponement of their four-game series against Detroit this week.