Chicago Cubs

Craig Kimbrel costing the Chicago Cubs a spot in the postseason

Chicago Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel blew another save on Saturday to St. Louis in what may prove to be the last blow to the club’s playoff chances

The Chicago Cubs played the most important games of the season the past three days and twice turned it over to their All-Star closer. But Craig Kimbrel came up empty both times, and it will likely cost the club a chance at the postseason.

Kimbrel’s season-long struggles continued on Saturday as the Cubs played the third game of their pivotal four-game series against their NL Central rival St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field. The North Siders took an 8-7 lead into the top of the ninth inning and were three outs away from a win to draw closer to St. Louis and keep pace in the Wild Card chase.

They signed Kimbrel for situations just like this. The 31-year-old seven-time All-Star, four-time saves leader and future Hall of Famer remained unemployed through the entire offseason and past the beginning of the season. Finally, in June, the Cubs signed him to a three-year, $43 million deal.

Kimbrel’s season began in June. With two pitches on Saturday, he might have ended the season for the Cubs. Kimbrel gave up a leadoff home run to Yadier Molina off a 97 mph fastball above the strike zone. On the very next pitch, Paul DeJong hit a 96 mph fastball left up in the zone 440 feet to center field to put the Cardinals up 9-8.

That would prove to be the final score as the Cubs dropped their fifth straight game and third to St. Louis. Each of their last four losses has been by one run, something they hadn’t done since 1972.

Two days earlier, the Cubs had their own heroics against St. Louis, scoring three runs in the bottom of the ninth to send the game into extra innings. They turned to Kimbrel, who then gave up a home run to Matt Carpenter which proved to be the winning run.

Kimbrel’s tenure in the North Side hasn’t been what the Cubs hoped it would be. The home run by DeJong was the ninth he’s given up this year in 20.2 innings. He had never allowed more than seven in a season. His ERA now stands at 6.53 with the Cubs; he had only been above three once before. He’s giving up 3.9 home runs per nine innings; his previous career high was 1.01, set last season with the Boston Red Sox. And while his strikeout rate remains high at 12.8 per nine innings, that mark is still a career-low.

A reason for Kimbrel’s struggles is his lack of work. He didn’t pitch in the Majors until June 27. He then spent more than two weeks on the IL with elbow inflammation earlier in September. Saturday’s game was just his 23rd appearance this season. He hadn’t pitched less than 57 games since his rookie season in 2010.

The Cubs still have to pay Kimbrel $16 million in the next two seasons, with a team option for 2022. If this year doesn’t prove to be an aberration, that salary could be an albatross around their payroll.

That’s a long-term problem. In the short-term, the Cubs should be worried that the two losses Kimbrel gave up the past three days all but ends their chances of playing in October. The Cubs are now six games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central with seven games left in the season. They’re 2.5 back of the Milwaukee Brewers for the second NL Wild Card spot.

The remaining schedule doesn’t give the Cubs any favors. After completing their four-game set against the Cardinals on Sunday, they play three games in Pittsburgh before heading to St. Louis for the last three games. The Brewers, meanwhile, have series left against the Cincinnati Reds and Colorado Rockies, both teams under .500. Milwaukee has also won eight of 10 games since MVP candidate Christian Yelich went down with a fractured kneecap that prematurely ended his season.

The Cubs’ playoff hopes are still flickering, barely. The two pitches from the arm of Kimbrel on Saturday, though, dimmed those hopes considerably.

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