If Craig Kimbrel’s meltdown in the ninth inning Monday night in Cincinnati felt magnified for a first appearance of the season, that’s because it is.
Everything is magnified during a 60-game season in which the Cubs’ first four games is closer to the 162-game-season equivalent of 11.
And because of that, Kimbrel’s role as the Cubs’ closer is especially magnified.
He also has been a $43 million enigma since the Cubs signed him at midseason last year, a seven-time All-Star who struggled in big moments late last season and who went to spring training as a significant question mark in a bullpen full of them.
So when he walked four Reds with a three-run lead, hit another and skipped a wild pitch into the mix, before recording a second out, Kimbrel was about as close to finding answers as he was the strike zone.
And that’s a problem that will necessarily lead to Jeremy Jeffress to start getting the ball to start the ninth inning instead of waiting in the wings to clean up like he did Monday — when he took over an 8-7 game with the bases loaded and kept it there by striking out Phillip Ervin and getting Joey Votto to line out to center.
“I chalk that up to a lot of rust,” said Cubs manager David Ross, who also was one of Kimbrel’s catchers with the Braves early in the pitcher’s career. “I thought his fastball was electric. We just weren’t in the zone enough. We gotta throw strikes. Walks, especially in that spot, will kill you.”
Especially four of them — only the second time in Kimbrel’s career he’s done that. The last time he walked four was 2016. The last time he did it along with a hit batter was never. Even last year he had four walks in his final 11 appearances combined.
Kimbrel has lost some velocity since his 98-mph heyday, and Ross said part of the problem Monday was the pitcher didn’t trust the pitch.
But he wasn’t locating much of anything — just 13 of his 34 pitches were strikes — and the Reds were sitting on the fastball for as much good as it did them. They didn’t swing at any of his 15 curveballs, only four of which were called strikes.
Maybe it was rust. The Cubs only had three exhibition games during the abbreviated training camp, and it had been a week since Kimbrel pitched in one. There also are no fans in the stands providing the kind of buzz — home or away — that closers traditionally feed off in the ninth inning.
But it’s also hard to script an “easier” save situation than a three-run lead against the Reds with Votto eight spots away from seeing another at-bat.
“I’m not trying to make excuses for anybody, but we’ve got to get a little bit of leash,” Ross said, suggesting Kimbrel having more trust in himself is key, along with a couple of good outings to instill confidence and get on a roll.
“This is a really unique situation that we’re dealing with,” Ross said.
No doubt. And part of what makes it unique — the 60-game sprint — also makes the Kimbrel question even bigger, earlier than it might be if this were April in a normal season. Especially since that question already was there long before Monday.
And that makes it answer time for Kimbrel quickly. Or decision time for Ross.