Craig Kimbrel could have doubted himself and questioned whether he’d ever been the same again — everybody else seemed to.
“Absolutely not,” the Cubs reliever said.
The answer was delivered with force not unlike his fastball these days, and with a similar result. It produced a sudden end to his exchange with media during their Zoom session Wednesday after Kimbrel earned his first save in nearly a year with a three-strikeout performance in a 4-2 win over the Cardinals.
His fastball is back to 98. His curveball is back in the strike zone. His confidence is back after three consecutive eye-opening appearances against the Brewers and Cards.
Now all that’s left is for the Cubs to say he’s back in the closer role for the team with the second-best record in the National League and designs on a run in October.
“I knew you were going to ask that,” said manager David Ross, whose answer was not nearly as decisive as Kimbrel’s:
“Craig Kimbrel is a good option at the back end of our bullpen,” Ross said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve got to say that.”
Considering the front office promised the guy $43 million last summer to be the closer through next year, and that the manager specifically in spring training and summer camp that he’s the closer, Ross might have to say it a lot if Kimbrel stays on this roll without that role.
“We’re going to try to match everybody up as best we can,” Ross added on this day. “But I have no hesitation going to Craig.”
For now Kimbrel credits teammates Rowan Wick and Jeremy Jeffress for filling in effectively at the end of the game while he has struggled, and he lauds Ross — a former teammate — for how he’s handled the situation and communicating with the pitcher.
“All I can do is go out and pitch and let that happen,” Kimbrel said of winning back a closer role he rode to seven All-Star appearances with Atlanta and Boston from 2011 to 2018. “I don’t walk around with my chest out or anything like that. I can just go out and do it on the field. That’s all I can worry about.”
As good as he has looked Friday, Sunday and Wednesday — striking out seven of the 11 batters he faced — it’s only three games.
And even in praising the carry on Kimbrel’s fastball and rediscovered location, Ross added, “I still think he’s got some room to improve on the [depth of his] breaking ball.”
But if this is a sign of what the 16-8 Cubs might be able to expect from Kimbrel over the final half of this short season?
“It’s huge,” teammate Jason Heyward said.
Kimbrel, 32, said he thinks he developed bad habits and made mistakes in how to correct, but that he feels closer to normal now.
“I feel like I can throw the ball where I want, somewhere close to where I want,” he said. “When that happens, everything kind of falls into place. My last couple of outings have been good, but I’m looking to do a lot more than three scoreless. I’m looking to throw a lot more than that.”
The save Wednesday was Kimbrel’s first since Aug. 29 of last year — when he struggled through a couple of late-season injuries and gave up a career-high nine homers in less than half a season.
On this day, he retired the first two batters with third-strike curveballs — one looking, the next on a weak checked swing. After hitting pinch-hitter Tommy Edman with a curve, he struck out Kolten Wong looking at a fastball — the sixth straight to finish the at-bat.
“He’s one of the best closers of all-time, so you knew he was going to figure it out,” teammate David Bote said. “It’s not surprising.”
Except maybe that part about when the Cubs might call him their closer again.
“He’s still getting there, but tonight was a nice sign for him,” Ross said. “He’s been turning in the right direction.
“I’ve said it all along: He’s going to be a big part of our bullpen, a big part of our success if we are going to do what we want to do this season.”