Craig Kimbrel

Craig Kimbrel looks to be finding his chill-inducing form again for Cubs

Craig Kimbrel looks to be finding his chill-inducing form again for Cubs

Craig Kimbrel is once again starting to look like the lockdown closer everybody expected him to be.

And it couldn't come at a more perfect time for the Cubs.

Kimbrel was activated off the injured list last weekend following a bout of right knee inflammation and after allowing a solo homer in a blowout Sunday, he picked up back-to-back saves Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Cubs have not wanted to push Kimbrel all season and that's especially the case when he's fresh off the IL. So after working consecutive nights, Joe Maddon turned to Kyle Ryan and Rowan Wick to pitch the ninth inning of Thursday's 1-0 nail-biter.

The 31-year-old Kimbrel tossed two perfect innings against the Giants in the series, striking out half the batters he faced and in the process, took over the team lead for saves on the season from Pedro Strop.

Kimbrel has now gone 11-for-13 in save situations despite a 5.28 ERA and 1.43 WHIP in 15.1 innings and the pair of appearances at Wrigley Field this week was as encouraging as it gets.

"He looked really good [Wednesday] night - possibly the best I've seen him," Maddon said. "The fastball was that good; the curveball was that good."

The Cubs signed Kimbrel to a three-year, $43 million deal in June to help shore up the back end of the bullpen, but they still are tied for the MLB lead with 24 blown saves.

That's been a byproduct of multiple late meltdowns on the road, which includes a couple of issues in Pennsylvania on the most recent trip when Kimbrel was on the shelf. But he's also been a part of that problem, serving up a pair of homers July 27 in Milwaukee and also taking the loss July 3 in Pittsburgh to blow late leads.

Then again, nobody's perfect and Kimbrel - who is on a Hall of Fame trajectory with 344 saves to his name and a career 2.00 ERA - hasn't blown a save in nearly a month now. 

Fans aren't the only ones who get caught up in the moment when "Sweet Child O' Mine" starts blaring over the Wrigley loudspeakers.

"It's Craig Kimbrel. You can't help but just watch him run in from the bullpen every time and get chills," Anthony Rizzo said. "I'm fortunate enough to play with him and - in my opinion - another Hall of Fame closer in [Aroldis] Chapman. It's fun to see these guys just come out."

Kimbrel hasn't exactly had a normal year, missing spring training and the first two months of the season while in a free agency stalemate with the rest of the league. So it's understandable there would be a bit of a build-up period as he find his form again.

When he signed, the Cubs felt they were addressing their biggest weakness and elongating the bullpen. 

They need him to be that right now in a tight divisional race, especially as we move into September and the Cubs playing their best baseball of the season. 

Thursday's win over the Giants ensured the first winning streak of at least five games since April 27-May 5, when Kimbrel was still throwing bullpens to his buddy on his Alabama farm.

The Cubs haven't had much time this season with their bullpen truly at full strength, but it looks to be the case at the moment, as Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler and Pedro Strop are all off the injured list and Kimbrel is starting to get locked in. The emergence of Wick and Ryan have been huge and Maddon is still finding the best spots to work the newest additions - David Phelps and Derek Holland - into the mix.

A lights-out Kimbrel would make things so much easier for the Cubs and their fans, reducing the sales of Rolaids in every corner of Chicago.

"He brings a lot of stability to our bullpen," Phelps said. "We got a lot of really talented arms out there and I think as this season continues to progress, our ability to get the ball to Craig is gonna really be what determines whether we win a lot of games or not. 

"Being on the other side for a number of years, seeing him come in and close things out, we know what to expect when he takes the ball. Anytime we see him running out with the lead in the ninth, it's a good feeling. He has the ability to come in and just dominate. I think that's what we're starting to see now that he's getting more comfortable out there - the stuff's back to what it is. 

"He's fun to watch, whether he's just playing catch or throwing off a mound or throwing in a game - just watch the way the ball comes out of his hand. It really is a treat to watch him get after it."

Cubs bullpen gets another reinforcement with Craig Kimbrel activated

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USA TODAY

Cubs bullpen gets another reinforcement with Craig Kimbrel activated

The Cubs bullpen has had its share of struggles in recent days, but the team’s new closer is coming back from the injured list.

Craig Kimbrel was activated off the IL ahead of Sunday’s game against the Pirates. The game will be played in Williamsport, Pa., as the Little League Classic.

Kimbrel took the spot of Duane Underwood Jr., who heads back to Triple-A Iowa. Outfielder Mark Zagunis also joined the Cubs roster as the 26th man for Sunday’s game.

Kimbrel joined the Cubs as a free agent in the middle of the season and debuted on June 27. He made 14 appearances before going to the IL with right knee inflammation. He last pitched on Aug. 3.

In 12 2/3 innings, Kimbrel has 17 strikeouts, eight walks and 13 hits for a 5.68 ERA. He has nine saves.

The Cubs suffered back-to-back walk-off losses on Thursday and Friday with the bullpen blowing late leads. Three of the team’s most experienced relievers, Kimbrel, Brandon Kintzler and Steve Cishek were all on the IL at the same time. Kintzler was activated Friday, but promptly blew a lead in Pittsburgh on Friday in his first game back.

Kimbrel’s return gives Joe Maddon another option in the bullpen after going through a rough stretch with relievers.

Cubs see another reliever go down as Steve Cishek hits the injured list

Cubs see another reliever go down as Steve Cishek hits the injured list

The Cubs bullpen has seen better days.

Saturday, the Cubs placed right-hander Steve Cishek on the 10-day injured list with right hip inflammation. In a corresponding move, the team recalled Dillon Maples from Triple-A Iowa.

Cishek was one of Joe Maddon’s most reliable relievers before the All-Star break, as the 33-year-old posted a 2.75 ERA in 40 appearances. He’s had a tough going over the last three weeks or so, allowing runs in four of his last eight appearances. He holds a 10.50 ERA over that span, surrendering 11 hits — three of which have left the ballpark.

Many might attribute Cishek’s struggles to his usage, which isn’t the most far-fetched argument. A year after leading the Cubs in appearances with 80, Cishek’s 54 appearances this season is No. 1 on the team. In fact, he’s appeared in 14 of the Cubs 26 games post-All-Star break, tops on the team.

Perhaps a short stint on the injured list could bode well for Cishek, allowing him to reset and get a bit of a breather. However, his injury comes at a bad time for the Cubs bullpen, as Cishek is the fourth Cubs reliever to hit the shelf this week alone.

Closer Craig Kimbrel landed on the 10-day injured list on Monday with right knee inflammation, with the reliable Brandon Kintzler joining him there on Tuesday with right pec inflammation. Plus, the Cubs placed lefty Kyle Ryan on the bereavement list Friday, recalling Alec Mills in his place. According to MLB rules, Ryan has to be away from the team for a minimum of three games, but he could be out upwards of seven.

Fortunately for the Cubs, each of Kimbrel, Kintzler and Ryan could be back soon. 

Kimbrel initially said that he only planned to miss the minimum 10 days while on the injured list, which would put him in line to be activated on Thursday. The Cubs certainly won't rush him back, though, as they need him to be healthy while they battle for a postseason spot over the next two months. 

In the meantime, the Cubs have to figure out who will close games while the aforementioned relievers rehab. Maddon said that it's "committee time" after Kimbrel landed on the injured list, but Cishek was likely to get the first crack at a save opportunity. Without him, who pitches in the ninth inning is more unclear than ever, with Pedro Strop's recent struggles only clouding things further.

Be that as it may, the Cubs bullpen looks something like this, as things currently stand:

Pedro Strop
Tyler Chatwood
Rowan Wick
Derek Holland
David Phelps
Duane Underwood Jr.
Alec Mills
Dillon Maples

Maples is making his fourth stint with the Cubs this season. The 27-year-old holds a 5.63 ERA in 10 big league appearances, though he's struck out 13 batters in eight innings. He has walked 10 batters over that stretch, however.

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