Can Craig Kimbrel be fixed? – NBC Sports Philadelphia


PHOENIX — Craig Kimbrel was an All-Star this season and will likely be in Cooperstown someday, but he’s made it tough for the Phillies to rely on him at the most important time of the year.

Kimbrel took a second straight loss Friday night. In Game 3, he was wild and allowed a walk-off single in the ninth. In Game 4, he blew the first save of his playoff career, allowing three runs in the bottom of the eighth as Arizona turned a two-run deficit into a 6-5 win that shell-shocked the Phillies and tied the NLCS at two games apiece.

Pinch-hitter Alek Thomas, a lefty with a modest .230/.274/.359 slash line in two seasons, hit the game-tying two-run blast to right-center. Phillies manager Rob Thomson left Kimbrel in because he wanted to avoid using Jose Alvarado, who pitched two innings in Game 3, at all costs. Alvarado didn’t enter until Kimbrel had already put two more hitters — Ketel Marte and Corbin Carroll — on base. Gabriel Moreno singled home the winning run off Alvarado.

“The last two games sucked,” Kimbrel said. “I rolled up in here and cost us two games. The bright side is we’re still tied at 2-2 and we’ve got a game here tomorrow, then we get to Philly.”

The Phillies would have been in great shape had they picked up the final five outs of Game 4 Friday night. They would have taken a 3-1 series lead into Game 5 with their ace, Zack Wheeler, on the mound, and at worst, three chances to close out the NLCS.

Now, the series comes down to whoever wins two of three, and the Phillies won’t have a full bullpen for Saturday’s Game 5. Kimbrel, Alvarado, Jeff Hoffman and Orion Kerkering have all been used on back-to-back days. Kimbrel has thrown 45 pitches, all under high stress. Kerkering had never appeared on back-to-back days prior to these last two. At the very least, it seems those two will be down on Saturday night.

“We’ll check in with them tomorrow and see how many guys we’ve got available,” Thomson said. “We’re certainly not going to put people in jeopardy, but this is a tough group, and they want to play.”

The Phillies are 7-3 this postseason and all three of their losses have been crushing. There were the two in this round and the blown eighth-inning lead in Game 2 of the NLDS in Atlanta. For so much of the season, their key relievers have come through. Kimbrel had a 3.26 ERA and seized the closer’s job when Alvarado injured his elbow in early May. Alvarado was lights-out for a vast majority of the season. Hoffman had a career year. Matt Strahm helped the Phillies in multiple roles. Kerkering earned four promotions because of his dynamite slider, bat-missing abilities and control.

It’s a bad time for Kimbrel and Kerkering to be going south, and a lot of it comes down to strike-throwing.

“That’s the key,” catcher J.T. Realmuto said. “That’s the difference in the last two games versus the first two games, we’re turning our 0-2, 1-2 counts into 2-1, 3-0 counts and that’s how you turn good hitters into great hitters.”

The Phillies knew they’d need most of their bullpen in Game 4 with Cristopher Sanchez making his first start in 26 days. Sanchez went 2⅓ innings and allowed two runs, one earned. He did not have the feel for the changeup that led to his breakout season. Thomson didn’t want to extend him beyond 60 or 70 pitches but pulled him at 38.

Hoffman, Strahm and Seranthony Dominguez did their jobs to pick up 12 outs to take the game to the seventh inning. It might have played out differently had Gregory Soto, the most disappointing of the Phillies’ high-octane offseason bullpen acquisitions over the last year, kept the D-backs at bay, but he put the first two hitters he faced on base with a single and a walk. Kerkering relieved him and walked two straight to force in a run.

“A lot of our pitchers looked sped up to me,” Realmuto said. “But that’s what happens you fall behind in counts and baserunners get on. The place gets loud, they start feeling the crowd, the atmosphere. It’s the same thing our crowd does to the opposing pitchers when they’re at our house. The best way to not get sped up is to not let guys get on base.”

The big question now is who closes out games for the Phillies the rest of the postseason? Alvarado has been so important as the fireman in the highest-leverage situation that he can’t always be saved for the ninth inning. Dominguez has had bouts of wildness. Same with Soto. And now Kerkering.

Thomson maintained his faith in Kimbrel after the game but did admit he might have to insert him into a lower-leverage spot next time to get him right under less pressure … if that even exists this time of year.

“I’ve been in the big leagues for a long time,” Kimbrel said. “I’ve lost a lot of ballgames and I’ve won a lot of ballgames. The only way you come back and be successful is to believe that you can. And I believe the next time I touch the ball, it’s going to be great.”

It will take more than belief for Kimbrel and Kerkering, the Phillies’ most and least experienced pitchers, to rebound. Kerkering had a 1.51 ERA with 79 strikeouts and just 12 walks in 49 appearances in the minor this season, then began his big-league career with seven straight appearances allowing no earned runs.

The last two nights, he hasn’t been able to command the slider that brought him to The Show. He said it came down to overthinking. Realmuto thinks it came down to overcorrecting.

“I think yesterday he was hanging his slider a little bit. Today, I think he just over-adjusted a little bit and was yanking it more, it was kind of non-competitive,” the catcher said. “I think maybe he just tried to make too much of an adjustment and wasn’t able to get it going. It’s kind of the like the rest of our ‘pen, when he’s falling behind, it’s harder to get outs.”

The Phillies will need significant length in Game 5 from Wheeler, who is as capable as anyone on the staff. He has a 2.63 ERA and 0.70 WHIP in nine playoff starts. Only one has been subpar. He’s struck out 26 and walked one in 19 innings this postseason.

The Phils need him to be Superman again on Saturday night.

“For me, every game in the postseason is a must-win,” Realmuto said. “We wouldn’t want anyone else on the mound tomorrow. Wheels is our guy.”

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