By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The people of Boston have been fortunate to witness some truly special seasons by closers in recent years. Keith Foulke in 2004, Jonathan Papelbon from 2006-11, Koji Uehara from 2013-15 and Craig Kimbrel in 2016 but especially 2017 have kept the Red Sox in some trustworthy right arms for the better part of 14 years.
And certainly, by any measure, the 2017 season by Kimbrel was outstanding — otherworldly, even. He struck out 16.43 batters per nine innings, by far the best mark in the majors. His 0.681 WHIP was, likewise, the very best in MLB. His 1.43 ERA was second-best among pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched. He held opponents to a .143 batting average — best in the AL and second-best in MLB — and he struck out 126 of the 254 batters (49.6 percent) he faced on the year.
Kimbrel had an outstanding regular season — an all-time regular season. Historic, even.
But in the postseason against Houston, he looked like just another guy. He was in for some tune-up work in Game 2, allowing a hit and striking out one batter, but when he came in to Game 4 with the season on the line, he was simply not good.
Entering a 3-3 game in the eighth inning with two outs and a runner on first, Kimbrel promptly uncorked a 101 mph wild pitch on his third pitch of his outing, allowing the runner to take second. That overthrow went for ball three to George Springer, and Kimbrel would end up walking him on five pitches. He had issued just 14 free passes all year, walking just 0.6 percent of the batters he faced.
Josh Reddick — 0-for-3 lifetime against Kimbrel — strode to the box. He fouled off a 99 mph fastball and a 90 mph breaking ball while taking three balls to work the count full. Reddick seemed determined to get this hit for his team. With that full count, he fouled off an inside 99 mph fastball and an up-and-in 100 mph heater.
On Kimbrel’s third 3-2 pitch, his 99 mph fastball bled over the plate. Reddick stuck out his bat and singled past a diving Xander Bogaerts to drive in the go-ahead run.
The strikeout specialist needed a strikeout in this crucial at-bat. He could’t even get a single swing-and-a-miss.
The ninth wasn’t any better. He got Carlos Correa to chase three pitches outside of the zone to start the inning, but he followed that up by hitting Marwin Gonzalez in the back foot. He retired Alex Bregman on a 400-foot flyout before giving up a single to Yuli Gonzalez.
With two on and two out, Kimbrel once again needed a strikeout. Once again, he couldn’t even get a single swing-and-a-miss.
This time it was Carlos Beltran, who entered as a pinch hitter and took two pitches to start the at-bat with a 1-1 count. He followed off a breaking ball to fall behind 1-2, before taking a high fastball for ball two. The veteran right-hander fouled off a pair of fastballs and then a breaking ball, before Kimbrel left another breaking ball over the plate. Beltran barreled up another breaking ball and sent it high off the Monster in left field for an RBI double.
At the time, it was an insurance run. It ended up being the game-winning run.
For a guy who was so reliable all year, this was a most surprising result. Yet after the season-ending loss, Kimbrel didn’t seem stunned.
He didn’t even seem all that mad.
He found the whole series of events to just be “unfortunate.”
“I feel like this ball club, we went out there and got two games down, and came back yesterday and fought hard and came out today and fought hard,” Kimbrel said after his late-inning failure. “In games like this, all you can really ask for is to ask your team to go out there and give everything they had. Unfortunately it wasn’t good enough today.”
It’s the verbal equivalent of a casual shrug. We tried. Wasn’t good enough.
“It’s always tough,” he said. “Especially, it felt like we had momentum going our way, and there in the late innings it slipped away from us. And it’s unfortunate. We got a good group of guys in here and we fought hard, and it’s tough to come up short like we did today.”
Slipped away from us. Unfortunate. What can you do?
Kimbrel’s overall feelings on the year?
“I think we have a lot to be proud of as well. We played a long season. We won our division,” he said. “We went on some streaks that if we wouldn’t have done that then we wouldn’t even have been in the playoffs. Yeah, I mean, it’s unfortunate.”
Unfortunate ending. Won the division, though.
Kimbrel’s thoughts on his own performance?
“Had a good battle against Reddick, and he put a ball where nobody was. Scored a run. In the second inning, I went out there and gave everything I had. And it wasn’t good enough today,” Kimbrel said in his self-evaluation. “I had some balls get away and some balls drop that were unfortunate. I had that bloop hit to right and I kind of set up to Carlos, and we had a good battle and he put one off the wall.”
And Kimbrel’s assessment of manager John Farrell?
“We won the East. Unfortunately we didn’t move on in the playoffs, but I think he did a great job,” he said.
Maybe it’s reading too much into some postgame comments, but that is an awfully blasé series of comments from a closer who just gave up the runs that ended his team’s season. He surely seemed like he would have liked to have gotten the outs, but he also seemed to be taking a very Clay Buchholzian route by chalking up his performance to some bad luck — “he put a ball where nobody was” — and bad circumstances. He seemed content with the team’s effort level — “all you can really ask for is to ask your team to go out there and give everything they had” — despite the results.
Plus, hey, “we won our division“.
It’s just … it’s not what you’re looking for out of your closer.
Obviously, everybody works differently, but wouldn’t you want that player in that situation to maybe feel a little bit devastated for letting his team down? Don’t you remember a glassy-eyed Papelbon staring off into the distance as if he had just seen a ghost when he tried to explain his blown save in the season-ending loss to the Angels in Game 3 of the 2009 ALDS? Don’t you remember him spending that offseason obsessively watching the tape of the RBI single he surrendered to Vladimir Guerrero as a means of motivation?
Don’t you feel like Kimbrel might not even bother to rewatch Monday’s game again?
Heck, don’t you remember Foulke being willing and able to take the ball with no rest to pitch 14 innings over the course of three weeks as Boston’s postseason MVP? He sacrificed his own long-term health in pursuit of a championship, and he was as big a reason as any why the Red Sox ended their 86-year title drought. He pitched more than an inning six times that postseason, including five innings pitched combined on back-to-back-to-back nights in Games 4, 5 and 6 of the ALCS vs. the Yankees. He allowed just one hit and no runs over those five innings of work, throwing 86 high-leverage pitches without letting a run cross the plate.
It’s not that every closer has to react like Papelbon or has to have the bulldog mentality of Foulke … but wouldn’t you prefer it? Wouldn’t you want your closer to not only feel like he should have gotten his outs but also feel pissed off that he failed? Wouldn’t you prefer the strikeout pitcher to show some level of anger for being unable to get a bat to miss a ball when the season was on the line?
I know I would. And if I were the Red Sox, I’d be at least slightly concerned about the mind-set of my closer, who now has just one save in the five postseason series in which he’s participated.
His response to a sudden crash and burn to end his team’s season was, in a word, unfortunate.