Nine up, nine down, seven K's: Three pretty good days for Craig Kimbrel

BOSTON -- When at last they reached Kenmore Square on Monday, the runners of the 121st Boston Marathon had to find one more burst of energy to get them through the final three-quarters of a mile to the finish line.

Craig Kimbrel had a similar feeling.

Kimbrel had pitched the previous two days for the Boston Red Sox, leaving manager John Farrell unsure whether his closer would be available for an 11 a.m. series finale against the Tampa Bay Rays. When the game began, Farrell figured Kimbrel could use the rest. As it progressed, the plan changed.

And when the ninth inning arrived, with the Red Sox holding a one-run lead, it was Kimbrel who jogged out of the bullpen, unleashed 15 pitches and struck out the side to save a 4-3 victory, the Red Sox’s third win in a row.

“Initially, I think we were going to go with a day off,” said Kimbrel, who recorded three saves in as many days for the first time since July 24-26, 2015, for the San Diego Padres. “But as the day went on, before I went out to the bullpen, I told John I felt great and if the situation was there, I wanted it. And it worked out that way.”

It couldn’t have worked out any better, actually. During the past three days, Kimbrel faced the minimum nine batters, struck out seven and looked to be, in Farrell’s words, “in the best spot he’s been in from a delivery standpoint in the year-plus that he’s been here.”

“I think so, yeah,” Kimbrel said, agreeing with his manager’s assessment. “I think last year I was battling through some things [with a knee injury that required midseason surgery] and maybe got in some bad habits. Right now, everything feels great. Hopefully I can keep it going.”

Kimbrel dealt with issues related to his delivery in spring training, struggled to command his curveball and white-knuckled his way through a few saves in the season’s first week. On April 9 in Detroit, for example, he gave up one run on one hit and two walks and needed to rely on every last ounce of his power fastball to strike out the side and nail down a 7-5 win.

But Kimbrel showed no traces of those issues against the Rays. Of the 38 pitches he threw, 28 were strikes. And he threw everything, including his curveball.

Kimbrel should be the least of Boston's worries in a bullpen that is only beginning to establish order. With setup man Tyler Thornburg not yet close to returning from the disabled list, Matt Barnes has taken over the eighth-inning role. Heath Hembree got a chance in the eighth Monday with Barnes unavailable.

While Farrell’s faith in hard-throwing Joe Kelly appears to have waned, he had enough confidence in right-hander Ben Taylor to bring him into a two-on, two-out spot in the seventh inning. Never mind that Taylor didn’t find out until about 9 a.m. that he was being called up, just enough time to make the drive from the Red Sox’s Triple-A home in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He allowed a Steven Souza Jr. single to load the bases before getting Logan Morrison to fly out.

But when it comes to the ninth inning, there isn’t any ambiguity, even on days when Kimbrel isn’t sure he has much in the tank.

Asked whether he could remember not taking the ball when given the choice, Kimbrel said, “I don’t think I have. There might be a day, but today wasn’t it.”

And as long as Kimbrel’s delivery remains as smooth as it looked against the Rays, Farrell will sleep more soundly.

“I think any pitcher goes in and out of it as the year goes on,” Kimbrel said. “It’s just [a matter of] not getting far away from what you’re comfortable with so you can get right back to making a pitch when you need it."