Craig Kimbrel’s 2019 season didn’t begin until June. It ended with a pair of late-game meltdowns as the Cubs collapsed in September.
So the Cubs and Kimbrel hope participating in spring training this year will be the first step in helping the seven-time All-Star closer regain his old form.
“Terrible is kind of an understatement for what I felt I did last year,” Kimbrel said Thursday. “Going into this year, I’m going back to doing my job, getting on the mound and saving games.
“Time will tell. A lot of questions will be answered, but I have no doubt in my mind I’m going to get on the field and do my job this year. And I’ll put last year behind us.”
Kimbrel, 31, has plenty to put in the closet. He didn’t sign until June 7 -- reaching a three-year, $43 million deal with the Cubs -- because teams were unwilling to compensate the Red Sox with a draft pick and waited until after the 2019 amateur draft to sign him.
Kimbrel made his Cubs debut three weeks later and allowed two home runs while mopping up a loss to the Pirates in his second appearance, setting the tone for a woeful season.
One month later, the Cubs placed Kimbrel on the injured list because of right knee inflammation that continued to nag him after he returned 15 days later. Two weeks after that, Kimbrel returned to the IL because of right elbow inflammation.
The lasting memories of the season, however, occurred during a crucial four-game series against the Cardinals at Wrigley Field. In the opener Sept. 19, Kimbrel allowed a game-winning home run to Matt Carpenter in the 10th inning after the Cubs had rallied with three runs in the bottom of the ninth.
Two days later, with the Cubs up 8-7 entering the ninth, Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong hit Kimbrel’s first two pitches into the bleachers, essentially eliminating the Cubs from postseason contention for the first time since 2014.
Kimbrel, who didn’t pitch in the final week of the season, quipped that doubt crept in during “the times I was walking off the field and lost the lead.”
“I never run onto the field thinking I’m going to get beat or give up a run,” he said. “But too many times that was the case last year, and my job is to not make that happen.”
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The Cubs hope a normal spring training routine will allow Kimbrel to regain his sharpness and rhythm and will lead to improved health.
“I just listened to my body (in the offseason),” Kimbrel said. “I’m getting older. I have to change a few things -- run a little less, bike a little more, take care of the knees and make sure my legs are still strong at the same time.”
Kimbrel said the right knee soreness caused him to open his delivery sooner and alter his mechanics, although he accepted full responsibility for his struggles.
“I knew what I was going through (during) the ups and downs of last year,” Kimbrel said. “At the time, I knew what I was struggling with and what I wasn’t getting to.
“Right now I’m just putting it all together and making sure that I’m on top of everything, keeping my body healthy and be the best of me that I can be.”
Manager David Ross, who caught Kimbrel with the Braves and scouted Kimbrel’s workout last June that convinced the Cubs to sign him, stressed the need for “constant communication” during his pre-spring training meeting with players.
“(Kimbrel) knows how to prepare for a season,” Ross said. “I’ll let him do his thing and work into it.”
Predominately a two-pitch pitcher, Kimbrel realizes he has little margin for error.
That was evident last season as his fastball dipped by 2 mph to 96.4 from its 2018 peak. Kimbrel allowed nine home runs in 20\u2154 innings after allowing only 35 in 532\u2153 career innings before joining the Cubs, and right-handed hitters batted .289 with five home runs in 38 at-bats against him.
“Right now I’m still building arm strength and getting my flexibility back and all those small things,” Kimbrel said. “It just takes a little time, and once I get there, the numbers will be looked at and played with. We’ll have time to look at that.”