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Orioles find middle ground with Kimbrel for time being

The idea wasn’t to embarrass Orioles reliever Craig Kimbrel or show a complete loss of confidence in the nine-time All-Star closer. 

Like manager Brandon Hyde said after Wednesday’s extra-inning win in Washington, the Orioles “need to get him right” because Kimbrel remains important to their big-picture aspirations, regardless of his exact role for the remainder of the season. Relegating him to mop-up duty wouldn’t have reflected that sentiment, especially considering how effective he was over the first four weeks of 2024. 

At the same time, sending Kimbrel to the hill for another save situation after he failed to finish the ninth inning in four of his previous five outings wasn’t conducive to beating Arizona on Friday night. Watching the right-hander pitch a 1-2-3 seventh inning to protect a one-run lead in the eventual 4-2 win felt like the appropriate middle ground — at least for the time being. 

“Pitching in a 3-2 game in the seventh is still a lot of pressure and a high-leverage situation,” Hyde said. “I just want to get him going, honestly. I just want him to get confident. I know he’s had kind of a rough week and just wanted to kind of change his look a little bit.”

What Hyde didn’t say was the approach also left the Orioles with more opportunities to regroup if Kimbrel struggled, but he retired the side in order and one hopes that’s the start of a turnaround for someone ranking fifth on the all-time saves list. Anyone who’s followed the back half of Kimbrel’s career shouldn’t be surprised to see him struggle, so charting the path forward will be key for the up-and-down reliever still capable of pitching extremely well for stretches.  

Calls for general manager Mike Elias to fortify the back end of the bullpen will — and should — continue through the trade deadline, but Hyde matching up in the late innings like he did in the wake of Felix Bautista’s elbow injury last September remains the logical approach. That can still include Kimbrel receiving save opportunities if he’s effective, but the Orioles are already showing more than enough respect to the soon-to-be 36-year-old by paying him $13 million this season. If Kimbrel isn’t the best ninth-inning option for a particular matchup or over a certain stretch of games, the Orioles should feel no obligation to use him in that spot.

Hyde certainly hasn’t hesitated to give Kimbrel the hook in recent outings, which is why the harsh reaction to the manager’s public vote of confidence for the struggling reliever earlier this week was silly. Anyone paying attention could see the leash was already shortening. 

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Prior to Friday’s game, Kimbrel minced few words about his need to be better and to not compromise the rest of the Baltimore bullpen, but even he alluded to his inconsistency over the last several seasons. 

“I’ve had lots of ups and downs in my career,” Kimbrel said. “I’ve had some stretches way worse than this, so in my mind, this is just something that I’ve got to put my foot down and make good pitches and good things will come. I truly believe that.”

Plenty of smart baseball people will tell you there’s no need to guarantee any individual the ninth inning when you have other relievers capable of handling save opportunities, and the ninth isn’t always the most important inning anyway. Over the last two weeks alone, Yennier Cano, Jacob Webb, and Danny Coulombe have recorded saves as the Orioles continued winning and improved to an AL-best 25-12 on Friday night. 

The matchup approach worked last September and remains Baltimore’s best path forward, especially without a dominant closer like Bautista. And in an era in which even elite starters are pitching fewer and fewer innings, you need as many relievers as possible capable of pitching the eighth and ninth innings over 162 games. 

“Baseball is a difficult game, and I went through those same moments last year and even this year, so it’s bound to happen,” said Cano through interpreter Brandon Quinones after registering his 10th career save on Friday. “But it was good to see [Kimbrel] go out there in the seventh inning and regain his confidence, and we’re excited to hopefully have him back doing what he does best.” 

Maintaining some middle ground for Kimbrel was always the proper strategy, so you hope the Orioles continue that moving forward — even as he hopefully gets back on track. 

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