MESA, Ariz. — It’s almost hard to believe Cubs reliever Craig Kimbrel started the 2020 season as poorly as he did. Despite being healthy, he just didn’t look like the pitcher the Cubs had signed to a three-year, $43 million deal the previous summer.
After a disappointing first season with the Cubs in 2019, Kimbrel began last season similarly. He allowed seven runs in his first four appearances and was demoted from his closer role. From Aug. 7 to Aug. 13, he didn’t make an appearance as the Cubs tried to get him back on track.
After that break, however, something was different. His fastball velocity, which had dipped, looked electric again, touching 100 mph. He also was throwing his signature knuckle curve for strikes.
‘‘Last year, I pitched myself into the situation that I was in and did my best to pitch myself back [out],’’ said Kimbrel, the majors’ active leader in saves with 348. ‘‘I definitely had to put in some work physically and mentally to get back where I needed to be, and I was able to do that.’’
Kimbrel, 32, allowed only one run the rest of the season and returned to being one of the best relievers in the majors with a 0.00 ERA, 13 strikeouts and no walks in eight appearances in September.
‘‘Sometimes when you do struggle, you learn a lot about yourself,’’ manager David Ross said. ‘‘I think last year was Craig learning a lot about himself.’’
‘‘One of my main focuses this winter was just trying to stay mechanically where I was,’’ Kimbrel said. ‘‘I think toward the end of last year . . . I was staying there. And I know if I can physically get to where I need to be, everything else will come together.’’
During Kimbrel’s rough start, Ross often reiterated the same point about him: ‘‘To get where we need to go, we’re going to need Craig Kimbrel.’’
That statement was true last season, and it’s going to be true again in 2021, especially with some things in the back end of the bullpen needing to be resolved.
Last season, the Cubs were able to lean on Jeremy Jeffress and Rowan Wick to close games while Kimbrel sorted out his mechanics. Now, however, Jeffress is a free agent and Wick is dealing with an intercostal injury in his ribs, so the Cubs need Kimbrel to be at his best right away.
Kimbrel said he hopes his run of success late last season will be a good foundation for this season.
‘‘I feel like I’m ready to go,’’ Kimbrel said. ‘‘I felt like it was a good offseason. Threw a good bullpen [session Thursday], and we’re heading in the right direction.’’
Said Ross: ‘‘Every time I walked up to him in the locker room [last year], he was a guy that said: ‘Just give me the ball. I want the ball. I want the ball.’ So when I gave it to him, he proved he was ready for it.
‘‘There are a lot of rewarding factors as a manager that I experienced last year with the guys I have been around, but that’s one of the ones I’m probably most proud of — how he worked and how he went about his business.’’