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Blue Jays 4, Red Sox 3: Craig Kimbrel's uncomfortable reminder

Rob Bradford
April 24, 2018 - 11:46 pm

TORONTO -- The important takeaway from the Blue Jays' 4-3, 10-inning, walk-off win over the Red Sox Tuesday night wasn't so much the one pitch Craig Kimbrel offered up to Curtis Granderson that sailed into the second deck over the right field fence. 

Kimbrel got behind to a hitter who was previously 0-for-5 with three strikeouts against him and grooved a 96 mph fastball. It happens.

But really what the moment should have reminded us of is the importance of Kimbrel. This is one guy the Red Sox can't have too many of these kind of nights. Flat-out.

For now, they aren't worried.

"Actually, against the leadoff hitter (in the 10th inning), I was about to tell (pitching coach) Dana [LeVangie> that was the best fastball he’s had since spring training," said Red Sox manager Alex Cora of his closer. "Being able to spot it outside. Being able to go up. First pitch slider."

"He's unbelievable, he's the best closer in the game," said Red Sox starter Rick Porcello, whose ERA stands at 1.93 after seven innings in which he struck out nine and gave up three runs (all in the second frame). " That's baseball, it's going to happen from time to time."

"Actually tonight was probably one of the better nights I’ve felt warming up before I came in the game," explained Kimbrel, who had pitched just once in the previous nine days. "I’m going to give up some runs, it’s just unfortunate it was a tie ballgame like tonight. our guys did a great job battling back in the ninth and Joe did a great job to keep the game going and I just didn’t do my job today."

Really, the biggest debate involving Kimbrel before the Granderson home run was when Cora might start using him prior to the ninth inning. Performance? In eight outings he was 5-for-5 in save opportunities, allowing just two hits over eight innings.

But, behind-the-scenes, the confidence that Kimbrel would be repeating 2017 wasn't quite there yet.

Because of a shortened spring training due to his infant daughter's heart issues, Kimbrel wasn't exactly hitting the ground running when Opening Day rolled around. Appearing on the "Bradfo Sho" podcast, the reliever admitted to not quite feeling himself. That was April 12, 12 days before suffering his first loss since Oct. 1, 2016. That was somewhat evident in his velocity readings.

Coming into Tuesday night, Kimbrel's average fastball velocity was 95.8 mph, compared to his average of 98.3 mph last season. The velocity for the pitch that Granderson ended up hitting 423 feet? That was 96.5 mph. His fastest pitch this season has been just over 98 mph, where he touched 100 in every one of the months throughout the 2017 season.

Really, the sirens shouldn't be sounded yet.

It's understandable if Kimbrel is still trying to find his way after making just two Grapefruit League outings. And it's not like the image he has portrayed is that far off from a year ago. But what this should do is make us remember how important he is to this whole equation.

He's the one who allows Cora to figure out the rest of the bullpen, representing the lock-solid certainty. Tyler Thornburg. Carson Smith. Matt Barnes. Joe Kelly. All have potential, but none of them deliver the security of Kimbrel. And if there is any doubt about the other guys going forward, it's the closer who can do what he did five times last season -- come in a little before his usual ninth-inning home to help clean things up.

Andrew Benintendi struck out four times. J.D. Martinez fanned three times. And Kimbrel gave up the decisive home run. No one performance means much of anything heading into the next day.

Keeping an eye on things going forward when it comes to Kimbrel? That make all the sense in the world. The Red Sox fortunes may depend on this sort of thing being no big deal.

- Hanley Ramirez and Brock Holt each finished with three hits.

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