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With playoffs approaching, Craig Kimbrel giving Red Sox a reason to worry


BOSTON -- Craig Kimbrel relocated to Boston this season because the Red Sox can picture him recording the final out of the World Series.

One lousy week hasn't clouded their vision.

Still, if you slipped truth serum into their postgame meals after Kimbrel's latest dud here Saturday night, the Sox would have to admit their confidence in Kimbrel has taken at least a slight hit, even though the hard-throwing closer didn't give up any in a 4-3 loss to the desperate Toronto Blue Jays.

And that's kind of the point. Kimbrel's mechanics are out of whack just enough that he doesn't have to get hit hard to give up damaging runs. Considering the narrower margin for error in the postseason and the fact that Game 1 of the best-of-five Division Series against the Cleveland Indians is set for Thursday, there isn't much time to fix the problem either, assuming the Red Sox are even sure of what it is.

Manager John Farrell mentioned a flaw in Kimbrel's delivery that has caused him to move "a little side-to-side" and walk six of the last 13 batters he has faced, including Blue Jays outfielder Michael Saunders to open the ninth inning Saturday night. After reviewing video from the past week and comparing it to last month, pitching coach Carl Willis believes Kimbrel's issue is "posture-related," in which he's over-rotating his upper body.

Regardless, Kimbrel has given up six runs on two hits and six walks over his last four appearances. The Sox hoped rock bottom had come last Wednesday night in New York, where Kimbrel loaded the bases on a single, a wild pitch and two walks, then walked in a run before being lifted for Joe Kelly, who gave up a grand slam to the Yankees' Mark Teixeira.

But then Kimbrel entered a 3-3 game against the Blue Jays and threw seven of the first 11 pitches out of the strike zone, including an airmailed wild pitch that allowed pinch-runner Dalton Pompey to reach third base with one out and score the go-ahead run on Ezequiel Carrera's sacrifice fly.

"You get into some bad habits when you get a little rotational," Kimbrel said. "I felt like tonight I was a little better. A leadoff walk you never want to do, and a cross-up [on the wild pitch] led to a sacrifice fly. Overall, I felt all right. It's just a leadoff walk and a cross-up right there, and it's a run."

Indeed, that was all it took against a Blue Jays team that has lost 16 of its last 28 games and is holding on for dear life to a wild-card spot in the American League. Against the AL Central-champion Indians, Kimbrel figures to get away with even fewer mistakes, not that his recent struggles will compel even a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately manager like Farrell to take him out of the closer role.

Farrell has run the Red Sox's roster as a meritocracy throughout the season, doling out at-bats and innings based on performance. But he barely flinched when asked if he might consider flip-flopping Kimbrel with eighth-inning setup man Koji Uehara, who was the Red Sox's closer during their World Series run in 2013.

"At this moment, no," Farrell said.

To be fair, Kimbrel has earned that trust. Not only has he been as dominant as any closer in baseball over the past six years, but over 16 appearances from Aug. 13 through Sept. 22, he gave up one unearned run on five hits and had a 23-to-4 strikeouts-to-walks ratio in 14 innings.

The Red Sox are far more likely to focus on fixing Kimbrel than replacing him. Willis, perhaps thinking wishfully, doesn't expect it will be overly difficult.

"With his experience, but also with the type of pitcher he is, he doesn't have to have pinpoint accuracy with his stuff," Willis said. "Whether he's trying to create a little bit of posture right now, which he doesn't need to do because he has plenty of life on the ball, that could be where that posture is getting a little bit top-heavy. I think it's something that we can correct very quickly."

Said Kimbrel: "I'll get it squared away. You don't have to worry about that."

Actually, the past week has given the Red Sox reason to worry, at least a little bit, about the ninth inning. And with the playoffs fast approaching, that isn't a particularly good feeling.