Craig Kimbrel is back. The pitcher whom some were comparing to Hall of Famers Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman after only five seasons in the majors, Kimbrel notched his 19th save of 2021 on Thursday night, tying him with Padres closer Mark Melancon for the MLB lead.
Kimbrel also moved into a tie for 10th place on the all-time saves list with 367. He lowered his season ERA to 0.64, raised his strikeout total to 47, and helped the Cubs (39-30) take sole possession of first place in the National League Central.
Craig Kimbrel has converted 90.2% of his career save opportunities.
— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) June 18, 2021
It’s a welcome sight for the Cubs, who signed Kimbrel as a free agent in June 2019 but had yet to see him perform at the level that earned him seven All-Star appearances. While with the Braves, he led the NL in saves each of his first four full seasons in the major leagues, won Rookie of the Year in 2011, and made four All-Star appearances. He was an All-Star three more times with Boston from 2016-18, and helped the Red Sox win the World Series in 2018.
Then Boston let him go as a free agent, and after an unusually long wait, Kimbrel signed with the Cubs two months into the 2019 season. He appeared in only 23 games and struggled, posting a 6.53 ERA, the highest of his career. The pandemic-shortened year of 2020 wasn’t much better, as Kimbrel collected only two saves in 18 appearances and posted a 5.28 ERA.
But the world has resumed to somewhat normalcy in 2021, and Kimbrel is dominating once again. He hasn’t allowed a hit since May 25, a span in which he’s made eight appearances. Prior to Thursday’s game, Stats Perform noted on Twitter that Kimbrel has accomplished a seven-game hitless streak threes times in his career, and he’s the only pitcher to have done it more than once since the MLB began tracking saves in 1969.
In each of his last 7 appearances, Craig Kimbrel of the @Cubs has notched a save without allowing a hit.
It's the third time in his career he has done that in 7+ straight appearances. No other pitcher has had more than one such streak since saves became an official stat in 1969.
— Stats By STATS (@StatsBySTATS) June 14, 2021
Yet, all the baseball accolades pale in comparison to Kimbrel’s relationship with Jesus.
“At one point in my life, I had everything that I wanted, but something was still missing,” Kimbrel told Sports Spectrum at a conference shortly after the 2019 season. “I think that’s a story that a lot of people can tell who’ve had success, who’ve made money. All those things don’t fill you. They sometimes make you more empty and the only answer is Jesus and what we can do to let everyone know who He is. … That is our mission as Christians is to let everyone know who Jesus is and that should be our fulfillment.”
Kimbrel said that since accepting Christ, he has gained a higher appreciation for humility. Instead of relying on his own strength and putting himself on a pedestal, Kimbrel now prioritizes God.
“I think I used to put a lot of pressure on myself,” Kimbrel said. “I used to make things a lot bigger than they were. I used to think I was a lot more important than I am. You do start to understand those things but with Christ those things start making a lot more sense and start coming a lot easier.”
Kimbrel’s faith has allowed him to stay grounded in the midst of hardships. His daughter, Lydia, was born in 2017 with a heart defect, which required multiple operations. But through it all, God has guided Kimbrel and his family.
“Our daughter has gone through some very intensive surgeries and we’ve had a lot of scares, but through a lot of that, for some reason, I felt very strong,” Kimbrel said. “I guess because I had to be. I had to be strong for my wife, strong for my family and I think the only person that could have done that is God Himself and Jesus through me.”
As Kimbrel continues to grow in his faith, he has come to appreciate the sovereignty and grace of God.
“If we look in the mirror at who we are, I mean, we don’t deserve anything,” Kimbrel said. “We don’t deserve all the things we’re given in life but for some reason God continues to give them to us.”
With Kimbrel in fine form and the Cubs in first place as the season nears its halfway point, Chicago is already looking toward the postseason. The Cubs haven’t won a playoff game since 2017, one season after they won their first World Series since 1908.
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