PITTSBURGH - Craig Kimbrel’s two-year journey through the wilderness appears to be over.
The seven-time All-Star stuff is back. And the Chicago Cubs closer used every bit of it while finishing off the reeling Pittsburgh Pirates in a 4-2 win on Thursday to become the 12th pitcher in major league history with 350 career saves.
Kimbrel struck out Dustin Fowler and pinch-hitter Wilmer Difo with the bases loaded to end the eighth, then retired the Pirates in order for his first five-out save of his 12-year big league career.
"It’s a tremendous accomplishment," Kimbrel said. "Glad I was able to get here. Plan is to get to 400 now."
Kimbrel’s 22-pitch performance didn’t exactly leave him gassed. The 32-year-old spent nearly an hour going through his usual postgame workout routine.
"He’s a special one and we’re fortunate to have him," Chicago starter Jake Arrieta said after working six innings to improve to 2-0. "He’s going to climb the ranks. Especially with the stuff that he still has. He might end up being No. 1 at the end of the day."
A prospect that seemed far-fetched during Kimbrel’s well-documented struggles. He slogged through 2019 and 2020, going 0-5 with a 6.00 ERA in 41 appearances for Chicago.
It is fast becoming a somewhat distant memory. Kimbrel has yet to allow a hit in 4 2/3 innings in 2021. Asked what the difference is between now and the last couple seasons, Kimbrel just shrugged his shoulders.
"Throwing strikes," he said with a laugh.
SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES
The Cubs broke out of an opening funk by pounding out 11 hits against Tyler Anderson (0-2) and four relievers. Javy Baez hit a go-ahead two-run shot for the Cubs in the sixth. Rizzo and Bryant also homered as Chicago raised its major league-worst team batting average from .143 to .157.
"It’s nice to get the big boys going and when they get going we have a really good chance to win that day," Cubs manager David Ross said.
Arrieta (2-0) survived a sometimes wobbly six innings to improve to 14-6 against the Pirates. Arrieta allowed two runs, seven hits and three walks and four strikeouts.
"Didn’t have a few pitches throughout the game but was able to find them in big situations when I needed them," Arrieta said.
Adam Frazier and Gregory Polanco had two hits each for the Pirates but couldn’t stop Pittsburgh from dropping its sixth straight.
The Pirates welcomed 7,784 fans back to PNC Park, though the team is in a far different place than it was when it ended the 2019 regular season with a 3-1 loss to Cincinnati just hours after firing then-manager Clint Hurdle.
Pittsburgh is in the midst of an organizational-wide overhaul, one focused more on the future than the present. A year after finishing with the worst record in the majors, the Pirates are off to another sluggish start under second-year manager Derek Shelton.
The offense is in a funk and the pitching has been problematic at best. The Pirates entered with the second-highest ERA in the National League and while it dropped to 6.83 they continued to struggle keeping hitters in the ballpark.
Pittsburgh has allowed a major league-high 14 home runs, though the shots by Bryant and Baez were more a product of good hitting. Bryant sent a fastball low in the zone to the bushes behind the fence in center in the first. Baez scrapped an Anderson offering off the plate and flicked it into the short-porch in left field in the sixth to put the Cubs in front.
Still, Shelton remained upbeat.
"I think our fans realize that we’re building something here and that it’s going to be a journey," he said. "I really appreciate their support, not only today but how they’ve been throughout. It’s outstanding."
Pirates: 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes (left wrist discomfort) is making incremental progress but there is no timetable set for a possible return. Hayes went on the 10-day injured list on April 4 and it is unlikely he will be back on the first day he is eligible.
Cubs: Zach Davies (1-0, 3.18 ERA) will go for his second victory over the Pirates in a week when the teams meet on Saturday.
Pirates: Mitch Keller (0-1, 9.00) will attempt to bounce back after lasting just three innings against Chicago last weekend. Keller has been struggling with his command. He’s issued 12 walks in 14 1/3 innings since the beginning of spring training.