Craig Kimbrel struggles
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Craig Kimbrel walks four batters as struggles continue

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Craig Kimbrel couldn’t nail down the save Monday night against the Reds as his struggles dating back to 2019 continued. With the Cubs leading 8-5 in the bottom of the ninth in Cincinnati, Kimbrel issued a leadoff walk to Nick Castellanos. He uncorked a wild pitch before getting Jesse Winker to ground out, pushing Castellanos to third base. Kimbrel walked Josh VanMeter and Shogo Akimyama to load the bases. Matters got worse when Kimbrel hit Freddy Galvis with a pitch to force in a run, then he walked Tyler Stephenson to push in another run, closing the Cubs’ lead to one run. Jeremy Jeffress relieved Kimbrel, getting Phillip Ervin to strike out and Joey Votto to line out to end the game.

Kimbrel’s fastball sat in the 94-96 range, maxing out at 97. It’s a tick off from where he used to be from 2011-17, when he was arguably MLB’s most dominant closer. Last year, after signing in June with the Cubs on a three-year, $43 million contract, Kimbrel posted a 6.53 ERA, going 13-for-16 in save chances with 30 strikeouts and 12 walks over 20 2/3 innings. He missed some time in August and September in separate injured list stints due to elbow issues.

It was that late start to the 2019 season to which Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein attributed Kimbrel’s struggles. Epstein said, “We knew that given that he wouldn’t have a normal spring training, given that he was trying to do something that very few had ever done before, which was join the team midstream in a closer’s role, that there would be some risk. We felt it was certainly a risk worth taking. I think it’s impossible to pinpoint how much of his struggles have been because of that, but from my perspective it’s the single biggest factor. He’s never struggled like this before. He’s never even been close to having this type of performance before.”

Kimbrel took until June to sign because MLB’s free agency had stagnated. Many teams were tanking or otherwise slashing payroll. Others simply viewed 30-year-old free agents as unwise investments. For similar reasons, Dallas Keuchel didn’t sign a contract until June 7, 2019 with the Braves on a one-year, $21.21 million deal.

Kimbrel is again having an atypical preparation period, as the sport was suspended in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Players returned to training camp on July 1 with around three weeks to ramp up again before the start of the regular season. Players are normally afforded around six weeks in spring training under normal circumstances. It comes as no surprise then that more than a handful of elite pitchers have suffered injuries in the early going: Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Corey Kluber, Ken Giles. Pitchers are generally expected to struggle in the early part of the 2020 season due to the reduced time to get back into playing shape after the long layoff.

While a lack of ideal circumstances is certainly a large part of the equation, it is worth noting that Kimbrel is 32 years old. Pitchers, especially relievers, don’t have long shelf lives. But one has to wonder how things might have been different if the Cubs had signed Kimbrel in January as opposed to June last year.

Now the Cubs must decide how much leash they can afford Kimbrel in a 60-game season. Or do they rely on the likes of Jeremy Jeffress and Rowan Wick to close out games and push Kimbrel to the seventh and eighth innings?

Young Blue Jays say they aren’t intimidated by top seed Rays

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) When the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays opened the pandemic-delayed season a little over two months ago, there was little to indicate the AL East rivals might meet again to begin the playoffs.

While the Rays launched the truncated 60-game schedule with expectations of making a strong bid for their first division title in a decade, the Blue Jays generally were viewed as an immensely talented young team still years away from postseason contention.

Tampa Bay didn’t disappoint, shrugging off a slow start to go a league-best 40-20 and claim the No. 1 seed in the AL playoffs that begin Tuesday.

Lefty Blake Snell, who’ll start Game 1 of the best-of-three wild-card series against Toronto at Tropicana Field, also isn’t surprised that the eighth-seeded Blue Jays earned a spot, too.

The Rays won six of 10 games between the teams during the regular season, but were outscored 48-44 and outhomered 17-11.

And while Toronto (32-28) lacks the playoff experience Tampa Bay gained last season when the Rays beat Oakland in the AL wild-card game before falling to Houston in the divisional round, the Blue Jays are building with exciting young players such as Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

“They’ve got a lot of young guys who can ball over there,” Snell said. “It’s going to be fun to compete and see how we do.”

Rays defensive whiz Kevin Kiermaier said Tampa Bay, in the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the second time franchise history, will not take the Blue Jays lightly.

“We know we’re playing a real good team,” Kiermaier said. “It’s not going to be easy, regardless of what a team is seeded.”

The Blue Jays, who’ll start right-hander Matt Shoemaker, aren’t conceding anything.

Bichette said he and his teammates respect how good Tampa Bay is, but are not intimidated by facing the No. 1 seed.

“I would say that we didn’t care who we played. I would say that we didn’t mind playing Tampa, that’s for sure. We’re familiar with them. We’ve played them well,” Bichette said.

“I think we’re confident in our ability against them. Our talent matches up well,” Bichette added. “We think if we play well we’ve got a good chance.”

NO FANS

The stands at Tropicana Field will be empty, leaving players to wonder what the atmosphere will be like for the playoffs.

Tampa Bay routinely rank at or near the bottom of the majors in attendance, but usually pack the stands in the domed stadium during the postseason.

“It will be different,” Bichette said. “Normally when you think of your first postseason you think 40,000, you think about not being able to think it’s so loud, stuff like that.”

The Blue Jays open the playoffs near where they hold spring training in Dunedin, Florida. It’s been a winding road for Toronto, which played its home games in Buffalo, New York, at the site of its Triple-A affiliate after the Canadian government barred the Blue Jays from hosting games at their own stadium because of coronavirus concerns.

CONFIDENT RAYS

Tampa Bay’s five-game loss to Houston in last year’s divisional round was a source of motivation during the regular season.

“It definitely lit a fire under everybody. It really showed us we belong. … We gave them a tough series,” second baseman Brandon Lowe said.

“We won the wild-card game. We belong in the postseason. I think that did a lot for us to understand that we should be in the postseason and we can go a lot farther. We know what to expect this time around. I think everyone in our clubhouse expects to be playing until the end of October,” he said.

CLOSE FRIENDS

Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash has the Rays in the playoffs for the second time. His close friend and former Rays third base and bench coach Charlie Montoyo is in his second year as manager of the Blue Jays, who last made the playoffs in 2016.

“Pretty special,” Cash said of his relationship with Montoyo.

“I really learned a lot from him being around him. The way he carried himself. His hand print is throughout this organization,” Cash added. “A pretty big impact and a positive one. … When they clinched I talked to him, we face-timed at 1:30 in the morning. I’m so happy for him.”