At every rocky turn this season, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has lent closer support to his embattled veteran.
When Craig Kimbrel started fighting in late May, Roberts didn’t waver.
“I’m not worried,” Roberts then said. “He is our closer.”
As the right-hander dip lasted through June and July, Roberts didn’t blink.
“Right now I’m not even thinking about it,” he reiterated on July 3 when asked if it was time for a change. “He deserves it.”
And even as Kimbrel’s season found new depths in recent weeks, Roberts’ tone changed only slightly.
“We always evaluate,” Roberts said late last month. “He’s our closest but performance counts, especially at the back end of the game.”
So it came as no surprise Tuesday night when Roberts decided to defend the 34-year-old again after Kimbrel’s latest late-inning setback.
Kimbrel was called upon to defend a one-run lead late in the 11th against the Milwaukee Brewers, instead allowing the Brewers to rally for a walk-off win, giving up a colorful single, a walk to the bases to load, and then a two-run flair to Victor Caratini resulted in a 5-4 Brewers win.
It was the fifth time in the last eight games that Kimbrel didn’t keep a goalless game. It was his fourth botched save (all came in games he entered by a run) and his fifth loss of the season. It increased its ERA to 4.57 year over year and 5.59 since early July.
Most notably, it led to recent speculation that Kimbrel, who has been fickle with fastball-curveball mix all year, is further shortening his own leash — regardless of the team’s seemingly stubborn support.
“Throughout the year I really felt like I was fighting – not necessarily against the other team, but against myself,” said Kimbrel. “Every time I go to the mound I feel like I’m going to do my job and I have the confidence to throw my pitches. It just doesn’t work.”
Roberts insisted Kimbrel’s stuff wasn’t bad on Tuesday — in a game where the Dodgers were trailing early, they got a game-saving catch from Chris Taylor late in the 10th and then took their first lead on a Justin Turner RBI single at the top of the 11th
Neither was Kimbrel’s fault for the first batter, who landed at the bottom of 11th, with Hunter Renfroe dropping a first-pitch bunt that third baseman Max Muncy fielded too late to make another play.
The right-hander responded with a strikeout from Kolten Wong, then Luis Urías had in a 2-and-2 count in the following at-bat.
After that, however, known problems reappeared.
Kimbrel, whose walk rate is well below the league average this year, missed by two fastballs to walk Urías and load the bases (Andrew McCutchen had started the inning as an automatic runner at second base).
He failed to get the next batter, Caratini, to chase a two-strike fastball across the zone — the continuation of what he believed to be a season-long inability to get enough swings and misses.
Then Kimbrel threw another fastball across the plate, which Caratini feathered to flat right field, where Mookie Betts set him up with no time to get a throw to the plate.
“It was tremendously frustrating,” Kimbrel said. “It’s time for me to turn things around and I will. Just come in every day, take the ball and get out of there and eventually it will turn.”
For now, Kimbrel will continue to get chances to iron out the role of closer, where Roberts said he’s still not considering a move.
“I thought Craig threw the baseball well tonight,” he insisted.
Was the decision harder to justify?
“Yes,” confirmed Roberts. “I think that’s some of the noise I need to drown out… Command was a lot better tonight. He hit the breaking ball. Yes, the result isn’t what any of us wanted, but I’m not going to go by results alone, if I believe the stuff is good, the process is good.”
Like Kimbrel, Roberts believed his opponents could recover before the end of the season.
“If he continues to be like that, it will change,” said Roberts. “It will turn. My message hasn’t changed with him.”
To even get into the 11th inning Tuesday, the Dodgers (80-35) needed fifth-inning home runs from Joey Gallo and Mookie Betts to erase an early two-run deficit. They needed another game-defining blast from Taylor in the seventh after Ryan Pepiot gave up three runs in 4⅔ innings.
Taylor kept the game alive again at the end of the 10th when he caught McCutchen in the left midfield gap with a stunning jump grab reminiscent of his highlight reel snag against the Brewers (62-53) in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series 2018
“It’s just one of those situations where you know if you don’t catch it, it’s game over, you have to catch it or go home,” Taylor said. “I think you have a little bit of that extra mentality like, ‘I’m going to give everything I have at this ball.’ I barely got it. I didn’t really know I caught it until I looked into my glove.”
Roberts added, “It seems like this ballpark is getting the best of him defensively… He timed it perfectly. It was pretty spectacular.”
Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Kimbrel was far from 11th – pushing both the closer and his manager through another round of questions about his increasingly disappointing season.
“I think the key is with him,” Roberts said. “He’s not on an island and I think it’s hard to live and die by results. Tonight I found the stuff really good. It just wasn’t going our way.”
Roberts said rehab pitcher Danny Duffy recently suffered a setback and called it “quite unlikely” he would return before the end of the season.
https://www.latimes.com/sports/dodgers/story/2022-08-16/dodgers-milwaukee-brewers-recap-craig-kimbrel Craig Kimbrel blows save as Brewers beat Dodgers in 11 innings