MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

Kimbrel trying to hold up his end of 'pen

Kimbrel trying to hold up his end of 'pen

BOSTON -- When the Red Sox acquired Brad Ziegler from the D-backs on July 9, the Sox thought they had put together a formidable back end of the bullpen that also includes Craig Kimbrel and Koji Uehara.

All three are lights-out closers, and Kimbrel's 243 career saves puts him among the active career leaders in that category.

It hasn't quite worked out that way.

"The baseball has been pretty up and down since I got here," Ziegler said prior to Wednesday night's game against the Yankees at Fenway Park. "But if this is as bad as it gets, we're going to be in pretty good shape when it comes to September."

Uehara has been on the disabled list since July 20 with a right pectoral strain, and Red Sox manager John Farrell said on Wednesday that Uehara is throwing long toss and there's no timetable for his return.

Kimbrel had surgery to repair torn meniscus in his left knee on July 11 and was activated three weeks later. Although Farrell said on Wednesday that Kimbrel is good to go, if his performance in the ninth inning on Tuesday night is any indication, he is not yet at full strength.

Kimbrel walked four and allowed a run before Farrell replaced him with the bases loaded and two outs in favor of Matt Barnes, who struck out Mark Teixeira looking to avert complete disaster in a 5-3 victory.

Kimbrel doesn't blow saves very often -- 25 in his seven-year career, two this season, his first in Boston.

How off was Kimbrel? He had walked only 16 batters in 35 1/3 innings coming into the game and still owns a 1.14 WHIP, having struck out 57 batters. Kimbrel reported after the outing -- the third since his return on Aug. 1 -- that his knee felt a little sore.

"I wouldn't say it affected my performance, but it's something that I'll battle with," Kimbrel said. "I'm still four weeks out of surgery. I'm good enough to pitch, I'm good enough to play, but it's not going to affect me each and every night."

Which begs the question, what was the rush? The timeline to return from that type of surgery is three to six weeks. With so many key games remaining and the season heading down to crunch time, how could it have hurt to have given Kimbrel a little more time?

"I don't have an answer to that, whether had we waited two more weeks was he going to be able to pitch every single outing with normal feeling and zero discomfort?" Farrell said. "I don't know that. I don't know if anyone knows that. We do know that by activating him by week three, we weren't putting him in harm's way or in danger."

Ziegler, an all-purpose reliever when with Arizona, filled in fine for Kimbrel as the closer, saving three games and having eight scoreless outings in his 10 appearances since joining Boston, allowing just one earned run.

Ziegler is one of those guys content to pitch in any situation he's needed. A right-handed sidearmer with a deadly sinker, Ziegler is particularly adept at inducing the key double-play grounder.

With the D-backs, he set up for J.J. Putz and Addison Reed, and he cycled into the closer's role when both pitchers either had arm or performance issues.

Ziegler overcame microfracture surgery on his left knee near the end of the 2014 season and returned to save 30 games in 32 opportunities last season for Arizona, including the last 28 in a row to tie a club record. He finished his tenure there with 348 appearances, the most of any reliever in D-backs history.

Ziegler, nearly 37 and a free agent after the World Series, said he might eventually need knee replacement surgery as he grows older. But that knee is just fine now.

"There's going to be long-term lasting effects," Ziegler said. "And I do what I can to do maintenance on it, to do therapy on it to keep it strong. But it hasn't been bothering me pitching at all."

Kimbrel was obtained from the Padres this past November in exchange for four Minor Leaguers. He spent the 2015 season with San Diego after pitching almost five years in Atlanta. With the Braves, the hard-throwing right-hander replaced Billy Wagner as closer and set the franchise record with 186 saves.

Kimbrel injured his knee while reaching over to pick up a baseball during batting practice prior to a game against the Rays on July 8. Farrell had to use Uehara to close the game that night, and then president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski engineered the Ziegler trade, sending two prospects to the D-backs.

Spinning it all forward a month, Farrell said that his pregame report on Kimbrel was positive.

"The knee has no increased soreness over [Tuesday] or five days ago in Seattle," Farrell said. "He's four weeks post-surgery. There's going to be days where there's minor soreness that he deals with, but not to the point of hindering his ability to pitch."

Farrell said he had spoken to Kimbrel after "everybody cleared out" of the clubhouse on Tuesday night and called it "a baseball conversation."

"It was about some things we saw from a fundamental standpoint," Farrell said. "I wanted to make sure that I'm not putting him in harm's way because of the knee, which he denies."

Players, of course, downplay their injuries all the time, "and that's why you spend a lot of time with them, get to know them," Farrell added.

The next time out for Kimbrel and the Red Sox will be telling.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.