By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Craig Kimbrel is going to have to start being comfortable in uncomfortable situations if the Red Sox are going to make anything out of the 2018 season.
That may seem like an overstatement, and it perhaps is to some degree. But with the powerhouse Yankees positioned to battle tooth-and-nail against the defending AL East-champion Red Sox this year, there really isn’t tremendous room for error — especially when a win is within the Red Sox’ grasps the way it was on Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium.
To be fair, Kimbrel did not enter the easiest of situations. Alex Cora called for Kimbrel with one out in the bottom of the eighth inning, with the Red Sox clinging to a 6-5 lead and with runners on the corners. Brett Gardner was due up for the Yankees, meaning the Kimbrel essentially needed a strikeout, because a double play with that speed at the plate was unlikely. Kimbrel would then have to retire Aaron Judge to quell the threat.
Retiring Gardner should have been the easy part. Granted, Gardner was feeling it at the plate, having already hit two doubles on the evening. But Kimbrel had owned Gardner in their previous eight matchups; Gardner was 1-for-6 with five strikeouts and two walks against Kimbrel in his career. Gardner also wouldn’t exactly have been considered a threat when the night began, as he entered the night batting .198 with a .568 OPS and just four extra-base hits on the season.
But Gardner really took a hold of this moment, patiently taking three close pitches to get ahead in the count 3-0, taking a strike, and then fouling off a pair of 97 mph heaters. On the NESN broadcast, color analyst Jerry Remy clearly saw something in Gardner, remarking with some appreciation that the Yankees’ leadoff man was going to be a tough out.
Gardner certainly was a problem for Kimbrel, but the pitcher didn’t exactly let his best pitch fly on the 3-2 count:
Kimbrel threw a pitch that literally split the plate in half, and Gardner made him pay with a two-run triple that gave the Yankees the lead and sent the home crowd into a frenzy.
“Tried to go in on him, but it leaked back over the plate, and he put a pretty good swing on it,” Kimbrel explained after the 9-6 loss.
Cora said after the game that the team had specifically planned to use Kimbrel against Gardner if the matchup presented itself in a big spot. The Red Sox ended up getting that matchup, but they didn’t get the result.
Though it’s only May and nothing was really at stake, it was a playoff-type atmosphere, one where Cora forced Kimbrel out of his comfort zone by inserting him into a game with runners on the corners and one out. That’s something that will likely need to happen several times between now and the end of September, and likely again in October. But the early returns from Kimbrel weren’t great.
And it was an issue that was compounded when Kimbrel once again left a fastball over the meat of the plate, this time to Judge, who demolished the offering with a line-drive home run that cleared the center-field wall in about 3 seconds flat.
“We were trying to elevate there. Just didn’t get it high enough,” Kimbrel said. “He got good wood to it.”
That he did, and with the homer, the Yankees were able to pick up an always-critical head-to-head win and take a one-game lead in the AL East over the Red Sox.
Though Kimbrel has very limited experience pitching in the eighth inning — he now has pitched in the eighth inning 30 times in his career, compared to pitching in the ninth inning 438 times — the 29-year-old said there’s really no excuse for a failure to execute pitches.
“I gotta come in and get outs,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the eighth or ninth inning, especially in situations like that. Like I said, I just didn’t do it.”
The full story shows that Matt Barnes didn’t exactly make life easy for Kimbrel or for the Red Sox. He served up a leadoff double to Neil Walker, who advanced to third on a Miguel Andujar groundout. Barnes then walked No. 9 hitter Gleyber Torres, creating a rather tense situation and forcing Cora to make a move.
It wasn’t ideal for Kimbrel, but he is their best reliever. In moments such as that one, Cora and the Red Sox want and need him to be his best. On this night, he just didn’t come through.
Cora’s intention to use Kimbrel in non-traditional situations was a subject of conversation during spring training. While that’s sure to come back to the forefront in the wake of Wednesday’s blown save (just Kimbrel’s sixth blown save in 83 opportunities with the Red Sox), the reality is that that situation was not uniquely an eighth-inning scenario, per se. Kimbrel is by far the Red Sox’ best strikeout man, and there will be many times between now and the end of the year when Kimbrel is going to have to strike out a Brett Gardner-type in order to prevent a run from scoring.
Next time, regardless of whether it’s in the eighth inning or the ninth inning or the 16th inning, he’ll just have to make a better pitch.