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Seasoned ‘Salt’: Cubs bullpen better for Brandon Kintzler’s experience

Kintzler has a 9-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 2.53 ERA so far.

PHOENIX — Cubs reliever Brandon Kintzler knows when he got the nickname, but he still seems to be guessing when he tries to explain exactly why.

“Anyone’s salty when they’re in Triple-A, so I just kind of had an edge,” the right-hander said of that April in 2016 after signing with the Twins as a free agent. “I don’t know, I’m 5-11 and throw 92 mph. You’ve got to have an edge somehow.

“Everyone started calling me ‘Salt,’ and when I got called up to Minnesota, it followed me there.”

Three years and two organizations later, it’s still following him.

And these days, if anything, he might be even a little saltier — especially with a lead on the line late.

Kintzler, 34, has been the most consistent reliever in the Cubs’ bullpen the first month of the season, one of the few bright spots during an early bullpen slump — and one of the more significant parts of a group turnaround the last 2½ weeks.

“He’s not a normal reliever. He’s a [freaking] closer,” de facto closer Pedro Strop said. “His sinker’s one of the best that I’ve seen.”

Not bad for a guy who wouldn’t be on the roster if he didn’t have a mutual contract option for 2019 after struggling once he was acquired last July in a trade from the Nationals.

When the Cubs declined the $10 million club portion of the option, Kintzler exercised his $5 million player option.

Now, with an offseason assist from pitching coach Tommy Hottovy on a mechanics tweak, Kintzler is proving he’s worth the money — and more than worth his salt as a key to the Cubs’ recent surge.

“When your mechanics are good, your mental aspect can just take over,” he said.

Even after a 2-1 loss to the Dodgers on Thursday, the Cubs had won nine of 12 games and hadn’t lost a series in almost three weeks as they opened a road trip late Friday night in Arizona.

“A lot of people forgot I was an All-Star two years ago,” said Kintzler, who made the American League team in 2017 as the Twins’ closer. “But that’s the way the game is; it’s, ‘What have you done for me lately.’

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“I don’t need anyone to -remember that,” he added. “It’s just to know that my career numbers are actually pretty decent. So you always think sooner or later they’re going to come back.”

Salt? Kintzler’s journey since that All-Star appearance has made him a lot stronger than that — with experience that has included two trades and a surprising, public blow to his clubhouse reputation.

He was traded to the Cubs amid rumors he was the leak on a national story about -discord in the Nationals clubhouse — which was strongly refuted not only by Kintzler but by the author of the report.

“It was very hurtful. I didn’t understand it,” Kintzler said. “It didn’t make sense and it hurt my character.

“When your character’s hurt, and you’re going to a new team like this — these guys are tightknit — you really don’t know how you’re supposed to act, and if everyone’s – to be watching everything you do. You couldn’t really be yourself, and when you’re pitching you’re trying to be this perfect guy, trying to make these perfect pitches.”

It helped conspire to create one of the worst two-month stretches of his career: 7.00 ERA with almost as many walks as -strikeouts.

“But I learned from it a lot,” he said.

“Now I’m a lot stronger.

Call him Seasoned Salt.

-The experiences and newfound strength, along with mental-side work with team psychologist Bob Tewksbury — and All-Star track record — all suggest his good start could be sustainable.

If so it’s hard to overstate Kintzler’s value to a bullpen that can’t count on ever seeing Brandon Morrow again after the closer -suffered a recent setback with the elbow that sidelined him half of last year.

“He’s going to be a key for us in the World Series this year,” Strop said.

Huh? What? The World Series?

“Yes,” Strop said. “The World Series.”