KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Tony La Russa’s calculation was simple. If any Royals hitters got on base in the inning, Salvador Perez would be stepping up to bat. And he’d been tormenting the White Sox all game.
“Craig had to be the guy to face him,” the White Sox manager said.
The White Sox acquired Craig Kimbrel at the trade deadline for moments like these, pushing their proverbial chips to the center of the table. They sent two young talents, reliever Codi Heuer and second baseman Nick Madrigal, to the Cubs for a year and a half (if they pick up Kimbrel’s 2022 option) of a likely future Hall of Fame closer.
In Kimbrel, the White Sox added a reliever who’d posted a 0.49 ERA with the Cubs, to a South Side bullpen already brimming with talent. And if the White Sox back-end relievers perform up to their potential, they’ll set their team up to be formidable in the postseason.
“We have a really good chance,” Kimbrel said of his new team, drawing on his World Series and extensive postseason experience. “Better than a good chance. We have the pieces; we’ve just got to do it.”
For the bullpen, that starts with a mechanical adjustment Kimbrel and the White Sox coaching staff identified in Toronto a couple weeks ago.
“Just trying to get away from yanking the ball and staying behind it,” Kimbrel said. “And that's sometimes getting a little rotational – at times can be good for the breaking ball but hurts the fastball – and just trying to find that happy medium. The last week or so I've really narrowed it down and then got a good feeling of where I am.”
Those adjustments will sound familiar to anyone who followed Kimbrel’s 2020 season. Kimbrel lost the Cubs closer role a few outings in, fading into the background as he and the Cubs coaching staff dissected his delivery and combated bad habits he said he’s picked up before 2020.
“I tell people all the time,” Cubs bullpen coach Chris Young said in a conversation with NBC Sports Chicago, “watching the way he handled it set the tone for every other person in our bullpen.”
Kimbrel emerged a week later, progressing from an up-and-down August that included his first save and first blown save of the year, to a spotless September ERA.
“Even through his struggles he was the same guy,” Cubs reliever Rowan Wick said. “He would show up every day, get his work in, work hard.”
Kimbrel’s recent mechanical tune-up wasn’t nearly as exhaustive as his 2020 revamp.
In his first 10 outings with the White Sox, mostly in a setup role as La Russa continues to turn to Liam Hendriks in most save situations, Kimbrel posted a 5.79 ERA. On social media, fans called for the White Sox to make Kimbrel, MLB’s active saves leader, the White Sox’ primary closer.
Kimbrel insisted his performance had nothing to do with the inning he pitched in and everything to do with mechanical slippage.
Even when he was dominating in the first half of the year, he told NBC Sports Chicago, maintaining last year’s mechanical fixes took work.
“It's not like a fix-all, it goes away,” he said. “It's something I've always had to keep up with. At times I've yanked pitches and then been unable to fix it the next one. It’s just making sure when I make my misses that they're not misses I can get hurt on.”
Since the conversation in Toronto, when White Sox coaches showed Kimbrel ways his delivery had shifted from early in the year, Kimbrel has thrown scoreless innings in three of his last four appearances.
The outlier was a three-run inning against the Cubs, who have been Kimbrel’s Achilles heel in the second half of the season. But Kimbrel said his mechanics were sound in that outing; the ball was coming out of his hand well.
“That was, for me, more so pitch selection,” White Sox pitching coach Ethan Katz told NBC Sports Chicago. “… He doesn't usually throw six straight fastballs, five straight fastballs.”
Because of the similarities between Kimbrel’s focus now and the adjustments he made in 2020, last year’s mechanical deep dive has helped this time around.
“I’m definitely in a comfortable spot,” Kimbrel said, “where I'm not scratching my head trying to figure out why I'm getting beat and why certain pitches are getting hit. I kind of know why. And it's a little more comforting and easy to fix.”
As he spoke, Kimbrel flashed an easy smile, the right corner of his mouth pulling slightly higher than the left. The look was reminiscent of one he gave a small group of Cubs writers in Spring Training months ago, as he fielded questions about his walk numbers leading up to Opening Day. Once the season started, his dominance quickly dispelled any Cactus League concerns.
“I'm not going lie to you,” he said in Kansas City Saturday afternoon. “I'm going to tell you if I'm not if I'm not feeling good. I'm going to tell you if I feel good. And I'm definitely getting to a point where I feel good.”
Later that same day, La Russa called Kimbrel in from the bullpen to pitch the seventh inning, knowing Perez would be stepping up to the plate four batters in.
Kimbrel had been unavailable a couple games earlier because, he said shaking his head, he’d dropped a candle in a glass jar on his right foot, bruising his big toe. It didn’t seem to bother him Saturday.
Kimbrel threw just one fastball in Perez’ five-pitch at-bat, spinning curve balls down and off the plate to the slugger. Perez swung at one in the dirt for strike three, ending the inning.
Now Perez was the one shaking his head, as he walked back to the dugout.
Craig had to be the guy to face him.