Kicking around ideas for Kimbrel and the Orioles' closer's job

Rarely do a reliever’s first warmup tosses in the bullpen create such a stir.

Craig Kimbrel wasn’t getting ready last night for the ninth inning. He was prepping for the seventh in a one-run game. Cue the gasps.

The Orioles went with the reset over their other options, and Kimbrel retired the Diamondbacks in order to preserve a 3-2 lead. One ball was scalded to first baseman Ryan Mountcastle. Another ball drove right fielder Anthony Santander to the edge of the warning track. But they were outs. Do not quibble.

Kimbrel is working on his mechanics. He isn’t dealing with upper-back tightness or anything else physical. And he’s still the guy who expects the ball in a save situation if he’s available. He said so earlier in the day at his locker.

The Orioles seemed to be on the same wavelength judging by manager Brandon Hyde’s comments after Wednesday night’s thriller in D.C. They didn’t appear ready to demote Kimbrel or do anything drastic.

"It's a day-to-day thing for me right now," Hyde said after last night's 4-2 win over the Diamondbacks.

Kimbrel’s contract wasn’t going to dictate whether the Orioles used him earlier in games. It wasn’t a deterrent. They have given their closers a reset in the past. Other teams do it, too. Kimbrel could enter earlier in some lower-leverage opportunities until regaining his footing – if a one-run lead in the seventh qualifies as lower.

I thought that would be the second step after trying him again in a save situation. Do not panic. Do not act like the team is in a freefall because of him. When in doubt, always check the standings. The Orioles are in first place with the best record in the American League.

The choices on how to handle Kimbrel, for me, began by sticking with him but also keeping him on a shorter leash. That’s what Hyde already had done with those ninth-inning removals. But that strategy also has a short leash.

Kimbrel strung together 10 appearances in a row without allowing an earned run. He struck out the side on May 3 in Cincinnati. But he’s also failed to finish the ninth inning in four of his last five outings, with two blown saves.

He had two holds, so take that stat with the proverbial grain of sodium chloride.

Retiring the first two batters Wednesday night in D.C. made it appear that Kimbrel was on track again. His first pitch almost decapitated Joey Meneses, but otherwise, he was barreling toward his 426th career save to break a tie with Kenley Jensen, who also has been stuck on 425 as if it were a glue trap.

Eddie Rosario crushed a 95.1 mph fastball to reduce the lead to 3-2. No big deal, right? Except the next two batters walked and Hyde brought in Keegan Akin, who allowed a game-tying single to CJ Abrams, a left-handed hitter who began last night slashing .341/.370/.682 against lefties.

Kimbrel experienced the back discomfort that forced him out of an April 28 game against the Athletics, but he avoided the injured list. The Orioles must be convinced that he’s healthy or the decision is easy.

The body isn’t to blame.

The Orioles aren’t releasing Kimbrel in May after giving him a contract that guarantees $13 million, including the $1 million buyout in 2025. To suggest that they do so now is absurd. And there are other descriptions that I’ll keep to myself.

You don’t eat the contract this early in the season. You try to fix Kimbrel. You try to find ways to protect leads and win games if he’s slumping. You trust his track record and don’t treat him like a one-year wonder. This isn’t Mychal Givens in an experimental role.

If the problem persists, they can anoint a replacement closer or take it situation-by-situation.

Got a couple tough left-handed hitters coming up in the ninth? Bring in Danny Coulombe or Cionel Pérez. Coulombe warmed last night and would have faced National League Rookie of the Year Corbin Carroll.

Try Yennier Cano but also remain open to Jacob Webb or Albert Suárez depending on availability and who’s got the hottest hand.

Suárez is intriguing. He retired all three batters he faced in the 10th inning Wednesday to strand the automatic runner, and the stuff and mentality make him a viable candidate. But he replaced Cole Irvin last night with two outs in the sixth.

Webb worked the eighth and issued a two-out walk to former Oriole Christian Walker. Pérez hit a batter and induced a ground ball.

Cano closed and notched his 10th career save. He’s proven in the past to be more effective in set-up. He obviously doesn’t burn to be the guy, expressing his happiness with the Kimbrel signing when we spoke in spring training. But he’ll take the ball in any situation.

A hole can form in the bridge if Cano is held until the ninth. That’s the risk.

I remain insistent that they don’t need to rush out and trade for a closer.

They can address the bullpen as the deadline approaches unless the situation really becomes dire, and it hasn’t reached that point.

I’m asked about Oakland’s Mason Miller. Of course, the Orioles have the prospects to make a deal, but how many do you want to peel away for a closer, even one as dominant as Miller, who appeared in 23 major league games before last night?

The Athletics don’t have to trade Miller, and the asking price understandably would be exorbitant.

Kimbrel has earned the chance to work out of this slump. The Orioles maintain confidence that it’s going to happen. He’s getting the ninth again. It just didn't happen last night, which caught me a bit by surprise. And I wasn't alone.

“We all go through rough stretches, his is just more magnified because it’s in the ninth inning. He’s going to be fine,” Coulombe said.

“After the game the other night I just said, ‘How are you doing, man?’ You try to pick your teammate up. That’s what we’re here for. It’s impressive the way he’s handled it. You can tell he’s been here and done it for so long. We know he’s going to get out of it. The more consistent you can be, the quicker you’ll get out of it. We trust that. There’s no doubt he’ll get it soon.”

“There’s been no confidence lost (in him),” said Cole Irvin. “He’s on the all-time saves list for a reason. He can get the job done any night. I’m sure that clean inning felt good for him, but we have a lot of confidence in this room with Craig. He’s one of the best in the game and there’s no doubt about that.”

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