On the day Major League Baseball announced its All-Star starters, a guy normally accustomed to All-Star consideration started the next phase of his career before an enthusiastic home crowd.
Craig Kimbrel, one of the game’s best closers, burst through the bullpen door in the top of the ninth inning to Guns N’ Roses “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” And Wrigley Field burst with joy.
It’s too early to tell whether the addition of Kimbrel will be enough to help the Cubs win the National League Central – for starters. But they certainly are a better team than they were on Wednesday, one whose bullpen has been fortified for the second half of the season.
You’ll remember that Kimbrel had to wait until June 7 before anyone signed him. He sat on the sidelines, the symbol of MLB’s new approach to free agency, and waited patiently for a club to decide it needed him. The Cubs needed him and paid $43 million for the privilege to have him.
Kimbrel has pitched in hundreds of games in his career and he later admitted he didn’t notice how Wrigley Field was rocking when he came into the game. But he absolutely could tell how great the city felt when he wrapped up the Cubs 9-7 win over the Atlanta Braves.
The final out of the game was provided by a diving stop of a Freddie Freeman grounder by Anthony Rizzo. Save No. 334 was in the books.
“He goes down and his arm goes up and the whole crowd erupts again,” Rizzo said. “That was fun. It definitely gives you goosebumps as a player.”
The Cubs have been waiting as patiently as they could for him. After he signed, he went to the team’s Spring Training facility in Arizona for a bit before reporting to Triple A Iowa, where he appeared in four games. While Kimbrel was prepping they already had his locker, with name plate, ready for him.
“We got him here,” Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward told MLB.com. “We know why he’s here. He knows why he’s here. He picked us and we want to make it worth it for him.”
Heyward was one of the Cubs players who sent Kimbrel a text essentially recruiting him once it became clear the team was interested in him.
“He threw well,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “He kept the velocity, [he] was up to 96 and we totally anticipate, being here with more adrenaline, it’s going to be higher than that.
“I was really impressed how he walked out there and started firing strikes. Very much in control of his emotions, which spoke loudly to me. That was a very exciting, dramatic game for a Thursday afternoon.”
Statcast reported that Kimbrel averaged 96.5 with his fastball. He started the ninth inning by striking out Brian McCann on a curve ball. But he did encounter some trouble, allowing a double to Ronald Acuna Jr., and walking Dansby Swanson.
It was reminiscent of the type of season he had with the Boston Red Sox last season. More times than not, Kimbrel seemed to pitch himself into trouble before figuring out how to get out of it. That tendency certainly contributed to whatever hesitation MLB clubs had about signing him.
“The first one’s always a tough one,” Kimbrel said. “Mentally, I’ve been kind of slowly going through this. It might take a week or so until I’m settled in. But, it’s still good enough right now.”
Maddon said he met with Kimbrel on Thursday and told the pitcher he wants to know on a daily basis how he is feeling. Maddon’s plan is to limit Kimbrel to three-out appearances.
“It’s a lot better (to pitch at Wrigley) when they’re on your side – I can tell you that,” Kimbrel said. “I’ve been doing this long enough. I’ve been able to have a chance to pitch in front of a lot of loud crowds. Today was another one and it was pretty awesome.”
As the season moves forward there will be many more moments like Thursday. The Cubs know Kimbrel’s performance will go a long way determining whether another NL pennant is in their future. But now the juice is back into the chase.
“There’s definitely a little bit of kick to it,” Maddon said. “The guys felt it. I was watching them watch him as he came in. I was watching him, that’s where my focus was. Primarily, this was a tough moment to come into. I know he’s done well. He’s got a nice contract. But it’s a tough moment emotionally to come into. To get there, the music blaring, the fans up and once he gets into his little pose, it was great theater.”