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Kimbrel, Keuchel back in action in big way for playoff contenders

In the big picture, it worked out OK for Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel.

Sure, it had to have been odd and probably pretty revolting for the two star pitchers — and the players’ union — that they had to sit out most of the first half of the season while waiting to be signed by new teams.

Once they signed, though, they landed right in the thick of the playoff races.

Just as cool, Keuchel got his first win of the season for the Atlanta Braves and Kimbrel got his first save with the Chicago Cubs, all in the span of 24 hours against each other’s team at Wrigley Field in what might have been a playoff preview.

The rest of baseball certainly noticed.

“It’s pretty crazy to have Kimbrel and Keuchel sign so late,” Milwaukee Brewers infielder Mike Moustakas said during a media session before the All-Star Game. “Baseball needs those kind of guys playing. Those are two superstar players that need to be in the game.”

Kimbrel and Keuchel, both 31, are linked together because they faced one of baseball’s new realities for certain free agents. While Manny Machado ($300 million from San Diego) and Bryce Harper ($330 million from Philadelphia) were the prize free agents of the offseason, Kimbrel and Keuchel went unsigned for the first two months of the season after declining $17.9 million qualifying offers over the winter and then not getting satisfactory offers.

Teams were reluctant to sign the pitchers for various reasons, including asking price, age and, of course, advanced metrics.

Interest in the duo increased starting on June 3, the first day of the amateur draft, when clubs no longer had to give up one or two draft picks and possibly international signing bonus pool allocation.

Keuchel, the 2015 American League Cy Young Award winner while with the Astros, agreed on June 6 to a one-year contract that will pay him about $13 million, the prorated share of a $21.21 million salary.

He was 12-11 with a 3.74 ERA and 153 strikeouts last season, when he made $13.2 million. When he won the Cy Young Award three seasons earlier, he was 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA and 216 strikeouts.

He joined a rotation that includes 21-year-old rookie right-hander Mike Soroka, 25-year-old left-hander Max Fried and 27-year-old Mike Foltynewicz, who was an All-Star last year.

Craig Kimbrel #24 of the Chicago Cubs in action against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on July 1, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Kimbrel, a seven-time All-Star and the 2011 NL Rookie of the Year, agreed on June 7 to a three-year deal that will pay him $43 million. He’ll get $10 million this year, a prorated share of a $16 million salary.

Kimbrel was 5-1 with a 2.74 ERA and 42 saves with Boston during the regular season last year, but then struggled in the postseason with a 5.91 ERA in 10 2/3 innings as the Red Sox won the World Series.

Neither pitcher regretted the delay in joining new teams, for good reasons. The Braves have jumped into the NL East lead over Washington and Philadelphia, and the Cubs are in the thick of the race in the NL Central with the Brewers.

Keuchel returned to action first, on June 21, when he blew a 3-0 lead and lost 4-3 to the Washington Nationals. He bounced back to earn his first win June 26, beating the Cubs 5-3. He allowed three runs and eight hits in 5 2/3 innings.

The next day, Kimbrel made his season debut to a raucous reception from the Wrigley faithful and earned his first save in a wild 9-7 comeback victory against his original team.

Until then, Kimbrel hadn’t pitched in the majors since Game 4 of the World Series for the Boston Red Sox against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Keuchel hadn’t pitched since the ALCS when Houston was eliminated by Boston.

That four-game series, which the teams split, might have been a playoff preview. The young, exciting Braves won the NL East last year before losing 3-1 in the division series to the Dodgers. The veteran-laden Cubs won the World Series in 2016, made it back to the NLCS the following season before losing to the Dodgers and then lost the wild-card game to Colorado last season.

Keuchel’s win against the Cubs validated his decision.

The Braves’ lineup is “very dangerous,” said Keuchel, a two-time All-Star who helped take the Astros to the World Series title in 2017. “That’s kind of the lure that brought me over here, along with some of the defense and bullpen guys that have been kind of pouring it on right now. It’s a complete team. I know a thing or two about complete teams and this group really excites me, day in and day out. It makes it more enjoyable to come to the ballpark and see some stars and some future stars in the making.”

Manager Brian Snitker was happy with what he saw, saying: “I think I’m going to be pleased with what I see from Dallas Keuchel about 98 percent of the time.”

At the All-Star break, Keuchel is 2-2 with a 3.60 ERA in four starts. Kimbrel has had a little rougher re-entry, with two saves, an 0-1 record and a 12.27 ERA in four appearances. He’s allowed five hits and walked three, with six strikeouts.

Even though they remained unsigned in the offseason, both pitchers kept themselves in shape and pitched before scouts. In Kimbrel’s case, his agent stayed in touch with Cubs president Theo Epstein as the months dragged on.

“Am I disappointed at where I am? No. Not all at all. I’m very happy where I am,” Kimbrel told reporters after he signed. “I don’t think waiting around trying to find out who I’m going work for the next year has really been the hardest thing I’ve been through. If anything, there’s blessings as well. Good to be home, spend time with family.

“We kind of understood kind of how the lay of the land was going throughout the offseason, the offers we were getting, the offers we were not getting,” he said. “I obviously had a lot of players reaching out, asking, ‘Hey what’s going on?’ I kind of had to stay in my shell a little bit and let this thing ride out. I’m glad I made it through this process, which was tough, and hopefully we can get this worked out between the players and the owners and move forward.”

Manager Joe Maddon certainly was happy.

“It gives you that playoff vibe a little earlier. When it comes to players in the clubhouse, when they feel that support from upstairs, it really matters a lot to them,” Maddon said at the time.

Same with Keuchel. He said the Braves “were one of the teams I had pinpointed going into free agency, with how youthful and exciting their team could be. I’ve always been an advocate of this formula — a great mixture of veteran leadership and young talent. It could become special. Hopefully I can bring a little something extra.”

It should be a fun run to the finish.