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Revitalized Craig Kimbrel will be in Cubs’ playoff spotlight

Since Aug. 14, Kimbrel has a 1.42 ERA with seven walks, 27 strikeouts and a .098 batting average against.

A revitalized Craig Kimbrel will be under the playoff spotlight for the Cubs.
A revitalized Craig Kimbrel will be under the playoff spotlight for the Cubs.
Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Cubs reliever Craig Kimbrel’s beard has returned, and with it has come the electric stuff that has made him one of the best closers in baseball for the last decade.

The struggles that affected him last season carried into summer camp and into the early part of the shortened regular season. For more than a month, however, Kimbrel has been the guy the Cubs thought they were getting when they signed him to a three-year, $45 million deal last July.

Manager David Ross has been consistent in his support of Kimbrel, the active leader in career saves, saying the Cubs would need him if they were going to have success. And with the bright lights of the postseason getting ready to shine, Kimbrel is going to get his shot to show he’s back to being the pitcher he once was.

‘‘I’m in a very comfortable spot,’’ Kimbrel said. ‘‘Physically, I feel pretty good. Mentally, I feel great and really just want the ball and want to go out there and pitch and help the team win.’’

Kimbrel’s bounce-back in the second half of the season was impressive. He lost his job as the Cubs’ closer early and had to build from the ground up, starting with low-leverage spots in early August before earning Ross’ trust again and returning to pitching in high-leverage situations.

After Kimbrel began the season allowing at least one earned run in four consecutive appearances, he has turned things around dramatically. In 14 appearances since Aug 14, he has yielded two runs and four hits with 27 strikeouts, seven walks, a 1.42 ERA and a .098 batting average against.

Kimbrel’s success has been fueled by better mechanics and more effective weapons, particularly his fastball. In his most recent appearance Saturday against the White Sox, his fastball averaged 99 mph and he was able to throw his knuckle-curve for strikes consistently. The electric combination has produced results that made him an All-Star seven times in his first eight full seasons.

‘‘Kudos to Craig for working through that, and the run he’s been on has been outstanding,’’ Cubs president Theo Epstein said. ‘‘Not easy to work through those issues midseason as a guy who’s not used to struggling and is used to having one role and doing it at an elite level. He’s been flexible this year, and he’s really found himself.

‘‘The arc of his season is putting him in a really good place to, I think, be a dominant guy in October.’’

Kimbrel has been asked to do more since the injury to fellow reliever Rowan Wick, who served as the Cubs’ interim closer until Jeremy Jeffress took over in August. With Wick down and more opportunities available, Kimbrel is going to get a chance to do his thing.

‘‘The last stretch of the year into the postseason, it’s kind of the time when . . . everyone kind of needs to step up,’’ Kimbrel said. ‘‘And when they get an opportunity in a big spot to take advantage of it and respond.’’

There has been a lot of criticism of Kimbrel in his short time in Chicago because of his various struggles. But when he was asked if performing well on the big stage would be a nice response to the critics, Kimbrel wanted to wait to do his talking on the mound.

‘‘Well, I hope I get my opportunity,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s all I can say.’’