Maggie Flaherty ’20
I would like to preface this diatribe by noting that Red Sox reliever Craig Kimbrel is, historically, a statistically-reliable closer and a talented pitcher. But this needs to be said.
Kimbrel went five-for-five in saves in the ALDS and ALCS, but those saves came with gloriously disastrous performances on the mound. If you told a Red Sox fan that their ALCS-clinching win would feature decent performances from both David Price and Craig Kimbrel, they would have a hard time believing you. Yet Price and Kimbrel sealed the deal – Kimbrel closed Game 5 in Houston to clinch the ALCS, sending the Sox to the World Series. He threw 14 pitches to get six outs. In true Kimbrel fashion, however, the game-winning out was a warning track fly ball, which is fitting considering his anxiety-inducing October moments thus far.
Craig Kimbrel should carry a Surgeon General’s warning for heart rates across New England after his performances this postseason. Health hazards and grey hairs grow at an exponential rate the second Alex Cora decides to have Kimbrel warm up in the bullpen. As a Red Sox fan, it is endlessly fascinating and frustrating that our bullpen relies on a closer with the walk rate of a New York City intersection. His post-All Star break walk rate is 16.7%, and it has nudged up to 18.75% through the first two rounds of the postseason. The fact that it was notable – impressive, even – that Kimbrel only gave up one walk in Game 5 against the Astros is case in point of the stress that accompanies his relief appearances.
Through the ALCS, Kimbrel had faced 27 batters, allowing 14 to get on base. He had given up 5 runs on 6 hits in 6.1 innings. Yet, he still got every save. Call him the next Mr. October, because at least he’s giving us a show. Kimbrel comes in with sizeable leads and opportunities for quick 1-2-3 finishes to games and decides instead to give the people what they paid for. The network execs at Fox Sports think he may single-handedly bring television ratings back to baseball – Kimbrel causes more drama than a Kardashian family reunion with an open bar. Cardiac Craig bears a postseason ERA of 7.11. In his ALDS-clinching save against the Yankees on October 9, he entered the ninth inning with a three run lead, three outs away from a divisional round championship. He walked Aaron Judge on four pitches. He proceeded to hit a batter and walk another, giving up two runs in the process. Miraculously, Kimbrel ended up getting the save after yet another warning-track fly-ball caught by Benintendi. This save was not without some self-reflection on Kimbrel’s part: when ESPN reporter Marly Rivera interviewed him after the game, she asked: “Craig, do you know what you’re missing?” He responded: “The plate.” Well, self-awareness is the first step in recovery, so this answer is a good sign for the World Series.
Luck has certainly been on Kimbrel’s side – I hear fortune favors the bearded and guys who have really strange mound rituals. Statcast ranked Benintendi’s Game 4 clinching grab as the statistically least likely catch of the entire baseball season, so Kimbrel’s saves are also, in big part, thanks to incredible defensive performances by the Red Sox outfield. Alex Cora has another explanation for Kimbrel’s showings. Red Sox management found that Kimbrel was tipping pitches thanks to a text from retired reliever and one of the best closers of all time, Eric Gagne. Maybe what happened in Game 5 of the ALCS was that the Astros couldn’t prepare for Kimbrel’s fastball anymore because he stopped telegraphing it. Or, maybe he just finally found the strike zone again.
After the ALCS win, Kimbrel told interviewers: “I’m sorry that I gave quite a few of you heart attacks in the last few days. Let’s hope in the World Series I can make them nice and clean.” Us too, Craig. Us too. But look, I enjoy the show. He sold me. If I can get my cardio by watching baseball instead of playing it, I’m all for it. You will find me selling Cardiac Craig shirts, dangling right arm pitching stance and all, in Hogan throughout the World Series.