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.
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.”