At every rocky turn this season, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has backed his embattled veteran closer.
When Craig Kimbrel started struggling in late May, Roberts didn’t waver.
“I’m not concerned,” Roberts said then. “He’s our closer.”
As the right-hander’s slump persisted through June and into July, Roberts didn’t blink.
“Right now, I’m not even considering that,” he reiterated on July 3 when asked if it was time for a change. “He’s earned that.”
And even as Kimbrel’s season continued to find new depths in recent weeks, Roberts’ tone only marginally changed.
“We’re always evaluating,” Roberts said late last month. “He’s our closer, but performance matters, especially at the back end of the game.”
So it was no surprise on Tuesday night when Roberts, in the wake of Kimbrel’s latest late-inning setback, decided to defend the 34-year-old again.
Summoned to protect a one-run lead in the bottom of the 11th against the Milwaukee Brewers, Kimbrel instead allowed the Brewers to rally for a walk-off win, giving up a bunt single, a walk to load the bases, then a two-run flair to Victor Caratini led to a 5-4 Brewers victory.
It was the fifth time in the last eight games Kimbrel had failed to work a scoreless outing. It was his fourth blown save (all of them coming in games he entered with a one-run lead) and fifth loss of the season. It raised his ERA to 4.57 on the year and 5.59 since the start of July.
Most of all, it led to the latest round of speculation that Kimbrel, who has been inconsistent all year with fastball-curveball mix, is continuing to shorten his own leash — regardless of the team’s seemingly stubborn support.
“This whole year really, I’ve felt like I’ve been battling — not necessarily the other team, but myself,” Kimbrel said. “When I go out there on the mound, I feel like I’m going to do my job every time and I have the confidence throwing my pitches. It’s just not working out.”
Roberts insisted Kimbrel’s stuff wasn’t bad on Tuesday — in a game that the Dodgers trailed early, got a game-saving catch from Chris Taylor in the bottom of the 10th, then took their first lead on a Justin Turner RBI single in the top of the 11th.
Kimbrel wasn’t at fault for the first batter who reached in the bottom of the 11th either, with Hunter Renfroe dropping down a first-pitch bunt that third baseman Max Muncy fielded too late to make a play.
The right-hander responded with a strikeout of Kolten Wong, then had Luis Urías in a 2-and-2 count in the following at-bat.
After that, however, familiar problems once again reappeared.
Kimbrel, whose walk rate is well worse than league average this year, missed with two fastballs to walk Urías and load the bases (Andrew McCutchen had started the inning as the automatic runner at second base).
He failed to get the next batter, Caratini, to chase a two-strike fastball above the zone — the continuation of what he feels has been a season-long inability to get enough swings and misses.
Then, Kimbrel threw another fastball over the plate that Caratini feathered to shallow right field, where Mookie Betts fielded it with no time to get a throw to the plate.
“It’s been tremendously frustrating,” Kimbrel said. “It’s time for me to turn it around, and I’m going to. Just come in every day, taking the ball and going out there and eventually it’s going to turn.”
For now, Kimbrel will continue to get the chance to iron things out in the closer’s role, where Roberts said he still isn’t considering a change.
“I thought Craig threw the baseball just fine tonight,” he insisted.
Was the decision becoming harder to justify?
“Yeah,” Roberts acknowledged. “I think that’s some of the noise that I have to drown out … The command was considerably better tonight. He was striking the breaking ball. Yeah, the result is not what any of us wanted, but I’m not going to just go by results alone if I believe that the stuff is good, the process is good.”
Like Kimbrel, Roberts maintained belief the closer can still rebound before the end of the season, as well.
“If he continues to show like that, then it’ll turn,” Roberts said. “It’ll turn. My message hasn’t changed with him.”
To even get to the 11th inning Tuesday, the Dodgers (80-35) needed fifth-inning home runs from Joey Gallo and Mookie Betts to erase an early two-run deficit. They needed another game-tying blast from Taylor in the seventh, after Ryan Pepiot surrendered three runs in 4⅔ innings.
Taylor kept the game alive again in the bottom of the 10th, when he robbed McCutchen of a certain walk-off hit with a stunning leaping grab in the left-center field gap that was reminiscent to his highlight reel snag against the Brewers (62-53) in Game 7 of the 2018 National League Championship Series.
“It’s just one of those situations where you know if you don’t catch it the game’s over, it’s catch it or go home,” Taylor said. “I think you have a little bit of that added mentality like ‘I’m going to give everything I have on this ball.’ I barely caught it. I didn’t actually know I caught it until I looked in my glove.”
Added Roberts: “It seems like this ballpark brings out the best in him defensively … He timed it up perfect. It was pretty spectacular.”
Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Kimbrel was anything but in the 11th —thrusting both the closer and his manager through another round of questions about his increasingly disappointing season.
“I think the key is with him,” Roberts said. “He’s not on an island and I think it’s hard to kind of live and die by results. Tonight, I thought this stuff was really good. It just didn’t go our way.”
Roberts said rehabbing pitcher Danny Duffy had a setback recently and called it “pretty unlikely” he returns before the season ends.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.