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Red Sox 6, Rangers 5: Craig Kimbrel has saved 300 games. What now?

Rob Bradford
May 06, 2018 - 2:44 am

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Craig Kimbrel had every right to savor the moment.

After needing 11 pitches to lock down the Red Sox' 6-5 win over the Rangers Saturday night, Kimbrel was greeted by his grandfather in the first row of the stands next to the visitors' dugout, and then his teammates, who offered an emotionally-charged round of congratulations once back in their clubhouse. (For a complete recap of the Red Sox' win, click here.)

Considering what Kimbrel has gone through recently -- with his infant daughter, Lydia, making it through health concerns in March -- along with the path he took to become the youngest closer ever to notch 300 saves, this should have been classified as a special moment.

Eight years to the day, Kimbrel had put on a big league uniform for the first time after being recalled by the Atlanta Braves. And now he had reached his 300-save milestone faster than anyone, in terms of appearances, save opportunities and age. He had come a long way since notching that first career save on Sept. 19, 2010, striking out Carlos Beltran, David Wright and Chris Carter to finish off the Mets. (A New York team, by the way, which claimed Kimbrel's current manager, Alex Cora.)

"I just got an early chance at a young age on some good teams and like I said I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities and gotten a chance younger than a lot of guys have," Kimbrel said.

"Unreal," Cora said of the feat. "He’s been good for a long time and for him to do it in that game is kind of appropriate. It’s one that we ran it out as a team, that was great team win. For him to come in, we know what he’s been going through for a long, long time, in spring training. This team got together around him and there’s a lot of good things happening not only on the field for him but off the field and we’re very proud of him."

Kimbrel becomes the 28th player to reach the 300-save level, with plenty of names undoubtedly primed to be picked off by the Sox' closer in short order thanks to the righty's continued dominance. There are no signs he is ready to slow down, as was evidenced by his ninth save of the season. 

After an understandably uneven spring training, Kimbrel has seemingly found his groove, adding a few missing miles-per-hours to his fastball while continuing to drop in his hammer of a curveball.

"It’s still getting there, but the fastball you can see has more life," Cora said. "It’s getting that finish up in the zone. The slider is getting better, so he’s been outstanding without his best stuff. I can’t wait to see him with his best stuff."

Now it really gets interesting.

Kimbrel isn't interested in talking about his future. That's understandable. The present is pretty fun for him right now. But with the closer eligible for free agency after this season, and in the midst of a career that is leading him to potentially become the seventh relief pitcher in the Hall of Fame, the conversation about what awaits is inevitable.

We really haven't seen a change in Kimbrel's role. There certainly doesn't appear to be any rush to use him as anything but a game-ender, albeit one who might taste the eighth inning every once in a while. But what if the evolution of the best relief pitcher's existence starts cutting into this save statistic that is currently being celebrated? Will it matter? 

Starting with the immediate future, it doesn't look as though Kimbrel is going to have to worry about heading into free agency armed with a fewer saves than normal. He is playing on one of baseball's best teams, continuing to dominate, and only being used as the guy to get the final three outs in close wins. That concern is proving to be unfounded. With Aroldis Chapman topping the list of closers' contracts with his five-year, $86 million deal, the Red Sox' reliever is primed to push his Yankees counterpart off his financial perch, maybe being in line for the first $100 million contract for a closer.

As for the Hall of Fame, Kimbrel doesn't necessarily need saves to join Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Trevor Hoffman, Bruce Sutter and Dennis Eckersley in Cooperstown. Heck, he just tied Sutter (who is in the Hall partially due to his part in developing the phenomenon of the splitter) for total saves, and is just 10 shy of Gossage.

It won't hurt to make it a no-doubt induction with 600 saves (a place only Hoffman and Mariano Rivera reside). But really what Kimbrel needs to do is exactly what he has done -- continue to dominate whenever called upon. That continued impression -- even while picking up a few holds along the way -- will be the key.

It sure was Saturday night.

Joe Kelly continued his domination since the reliever's Opening Day implosion. 

Kelly came on in the eighth inning, the bases loaded, the game tied and one out. First up was Joey Gallo, who had already blasted two home runs to the tune of a combined 881 feet. The Red Sox' righty proceeded to strikeout the slugger. Then came switch-hitting Jurickson Profar. After getting the count to 3-2, Kelly tried putting away the shortstop with a changeup, fastball and slider, but all were fouled off. So he came back with another heater, this time at the knees on the outside corner. The Rangers' hitter could only watch helplessly, getting rung up on an inning-ending third strike.

The next half-inning the Red Sox took the lead for good.

Since allowing four runs on March 29, Kelly pitched 13 times, not allowing a run. During the stretch he has given up just six hits, striking out 15 and walking only one. And against lefties over this time period the has given up two hits in 25 chances.