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Despite All-Star nod, Craig Kimbrel hasn't been reliable for Red Sox

BOSTON -- As the top of the ninth inning dawned Tuesday night at Fenway Park, the bullpen door swung open, the first guitar strains of "Welcome to the Jungle" blared, flames appeared on the center-field video board, and Craig Kimbrel began his 350-foot jog to the mound.

If your eyes were closed, you would have sworn it was a save situation.

Kimbrel, to the dismay of the Boston Red Sox, wasn't fooled.

Hand Kimbrel a lead of between one and three runs, and he dominates. But bring him into a tie game or one such as Tuesday night, when the Sox were trailing by one run against the Texas Rangers, and Kimbrel, the newly named All-Star closer and purported surest thing in manager John Farrell's bullpen, melts like butter.

It's one of the biggest mysteries in a season filled with pitching problems for the Red Sox, and it reared its head again. Kimbrel faced four batters and failed to record an out for the first time in his career, turning a manageable 3-2 deficit into a 7-2 loss that dropped Boston into third place in the American League East.

"That's probably the worst outing of my career," said Kimbrel, who could have struck the "probably" after issuing a leadoff walk to Elvis Andrus and giving up back-to-back singles to Rougned Odor and Jurickson Profar and a three-run homer off the left-field light tower to Robinson Chirinos, a .215 hitter. "I've got to put it behind me and come back tomorrow and do the job."

But if the Red Sox wind up in another close game Wednesday night, Farrell indicated he might not be so quick to use Kimbrel, at least not unless a save is on the line.

Consider this: In save situations this season, Kimbrel has allowed nine hits and three walks in 18 2/3 innings, with 27 strikeouts and a 1.45 ERA. But in non-save situations, he has allowed 12 hits and 10 walks in 13 1/3 innings, with 21 strikeouts and a 6.75 ERA.

The difference is striking, even if Kimbrel doesn't care to acknowledge it.

"I wouldn't say mentally I go out there any different," he said. "I'm still trying to throw strikes and get guys out. The only difference is, when I do my job and get out of the inning, the game's not over with."

Farrell bashers, a rapidly growing segment of the population in New England, will want to blame him for using Kimbrel in a non-save situation. Farrell is aware of Kimbrel's problems in those spots but also knows he prefers to not have too much rest. Kimbrel hadn't pitched since last Friday and was easily the most rested reliever in a bullpen that has been badly taxed.

The culprit here is Kimbrel, who simply must pitch better.

"I don't know that you'd say it's a fluke if you look at the few times he's come into that spot," Farrell said. "What's a little perplexing is the leadoff walks. You can't say it's solely because of hitter aggression. You're looking at upper-90s type of stuff, but the location, even when he had men on base, the fastball to Chirinos, he's looking to go down and away, and it ends up on the inner part of the plate for the three-run homer."

So is it a lack of focus? An unwillingness to bear down unless he can collect a save?

"I can't say it's a lack of adrenaline, because even in tonight's situation we're in a one-run ballgame," Farrell said. "You can say the game was still on the line. The numbers bear it out. It's been a difficult spot for him. A little disappointing here."

It also isn't anything the Red Sox bargained for when they traded four prospects, including touted outfielder Manuel Margot, to the San Diego Padres to acquire Kimbrel. While ace lefty David Price was supposed to anchor the starting rotation, Kimbrel was expected to do the same for the bullpen.

Midway through the season, they have been twin towers of underachievement, even if AL manager Ned Yost of the Kansas City Royals saw fit to choose Kimbrel as an All-Star, a nod that Kimbrel admitted surprised even him.

Price flogged himself again Tuesday night after allowing two more first-inning runs, including a solo homer to Shin-Soo Choo on the game's first pitch. Just as disappointing, he gave up a one-out RBI triple to Odor in the sixth inning after the Sox had rallied to tie the score at 2-2.

Although Price went eight innings, struck out 10 and was dominant at times, he lamented an overall "lack of execution" and insisted there's "nothing positive to point at right now."

"I'm tired of this," Price said, his ERA sitting at 4.64. "This is not me. I've got to get better. That's why they brought me here. I'm not doing it right now."

Kimbrel appeared less depressed and more confused by his failures. He said he expected to be used in that situation, noting as Farrell did that he hadn't pitched since Friday night and was the most rested reliever in an overworked bullpen.

"It's a situation where I've got to get out there, I've got to work and keep it close," Kimbrel said. "It just didn't happen."

Again.

How familiar.