With just 60 games this season, the Chicago Cubs need Craig Kimbrel to be better than he was last year.
Much, much better.
The 32-year-old Kimbrel is looking to bounce back from one of the worst stretches of his stellar career. The seven-time All-Star closer never looked right after he got a late start last year, going 0-4 with a career-high 6.53 ERA and three blown saves in 16 chances.
In his last appearance of the season, he was taken deep by Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong on his first two pitches in the ninth inning of a 9-8 loss to St. Louis that helped push Chicago out of the playoff picture.
If Kimbrel flops again, it won't take much to sink the Cubs' chances in a shortened season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“In my role, I think turning the page is a big saying, but I think in 60 games it’s going to have to be big time,” Kimbrel said Wednesday on a video conference call. “I think each game is going to be a huge game, so I don’t think guys can carry things from game to game as it may happen in a 162-game season.”
Kimbrel was once one of the most dominant relievers in the game. The hard-throwing righthander averaged a whopping 14.8 strikeouts per nine innings over his first five big league seasons with Atlanta, saving 186 games and compiling a 1.43 ERA.
After struggling in the 2018 playoffs with Boston, Kimbrel became a free agent. The World Series champion Red Sox made him a qualifying offer, which contributed to Kimbrel waiting all the way until last June before finalizing a $43 million, three-year contract with the Cubs.
When he finally got back to the majors, he had a tough time closing out games. He also spent time on the injured list in August with right knee inflammation.
“When those guys are in midseason form and you come in and not have faced a lot of batters, it doesn’t matter how much work you get in the minor leagues, it’s still a different game up here in the big leagues,” manager David Ross said.
“I think last year (he was) just thrown right into the fire and wasn’t quite locked in the way he’s expected to be yet. And you saw the results.”
Kimbrel was looking forward to a full spring training before it was suspended in March because of the pandemic. But he said his delayed start to last year helped him deal with the dead period for baseball.
“Definitely have had some things to lean on and to learn from the year before,” he said. “I understand where I needed to have my body ready to go and feel like I’ve done a pretty good job of that. Came in a little lighter than I was in spring training.”
Kimbrel has been working on a changeup to pair with his upper-90s fastball for a long time, but he said he has been throwing it more lately. He also has been talking to Cubs staffers about his arm angle and slot.
But the biggest key for Kimbrel could be his command of his off-speed stuff.
“The better I can control those, the better it makes my fastball,” said Kimbrel, who surrendered a homer to Willson Contreras during an intrasquad game Tuesday. “So I would honestly say controlling the curveball in the zone and keeping it down is really, it’s only going to make my fastball play better.”
Mateo tests positive
The San Diego Padres on Wednesday revealed that newly acquired infielder Jorge Mateo’s intake test for coronavirus came back positive and he’s experienced symptoms. Mateo was acquired last week from Oakland for a player to be named or cash in the first trade since the transaction freeze was lifted.
Padres manager Jayce Tingler said Mateo has not been to the ballpark and is self-isolating.
San Diego announced last week that outfielder Tommy Pham tested positive for coronavirus and was asymptomatic. He has not yet rejoined the team.
The Mariners said they had three positive tests for the coronavirus among 122 Tier 1 and Tier 2 individuals that received initial intake tests before the start of summer camp workouts last week.
The team did not specify whether the three that tested positive were players, coaches or staff.
The Mariners said all three are asymptomatic and are currently quarantined.
Diamondbacks reliever Junior Guerra has returned to the team after missing the start of summer camp because of a positive coronavirus test.
Guerra is one of four Arizona players to test positive and had not participated in summer camp since its start last week.
Guerra said his first test for the virus was negative, but his second about 10 days ago was positive. He returned after testing negative twice in 24 hours.
Cleveland Indians outfielder Franmil Reyes was cleared by the team’s medical staff to return to the field after being isolated for attending a party over the July 4 weekend.
The Indians kept Reyes away from Progressive Field after he attended a holiday gathering without wearing a mask. The Indians learned of Reyes’s off-field actions on a social media posting.
Manager Terry Francona said Reyes was retested and can now participate in the team’s training camp.
Also, Indians outfielder Delino DeShields Jr., who tested positive for COVID-19, is traveling to Cleveland after he had one negative test. He will be tested again when he arrives.
Washington ace Max Scherzer threw 48 pitches at Nationals Park and made quite an impression on manager Dave Martinez.
“We wanted to keep him at 50, three full innings, but he looked good,” Martinez said. “The key now is his turnaround. Let’s see how he feels [Thursday].”
Carter Kieboom, the rookie who’s the favorite to replace Anthony Rendon at third base for the defending World Series champions, said it was his first time facing Scherzer since spring training in 2018.
“Same outcome as today,” Kieboom said. “I struck out.”
White Sox cutouts
The White Sox are giving fans the opportunity to purchase cardboard cutouts of themselves that will be displayed at Guaranteed Rate Field during the team’s season-opening homestand.
The cutouts cost $49 and will be available while supplies last. Proceeds will benefit the team’s charitable arm.
The White Sox open with a three-game series against the Twins starting on July 24.