The injury nobody knew was holding Craig Kimbrel back last season

Craig Kimbrel (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)

Craig Kimbrel (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)

After striking out all three batters he faced against the Rays Monday, Craig Kimbrel talked about the differences between last season and this one.

“I think last year I was battling through some things and maybe got in some bad habits,” he said. “Right now, everything feels great. Hopefully I can keep it going.”

The immediate assumption was that Kimbrel was referencing his knee injury, the one that required midseason surgery and forced him to miss about a month.

Not so, according to the closer.

“I banged my finger up a little bit last year and it kind of got me into some bad habits, yanking the ball,” Kimbrel told WEEI.com.

As it turned out, the biggest issue for the reliever in his first season with the Red Sox was dealing with an injury to his right index finger, suffered while working out in late April.

“You’re going to adjust off of it. You can do that to a certain extent,” explained Kimbrel. “You have to in this game. You’re not going to feel the same every time out there. There are going to be times where you do one thing where you overcompensate for another thing, but over the course of a season you can into some bad habits doing that.”

It was a problem that those outside the clubhouse weren’t aware of, but the Red Sox had been keeping a close eye on.

“He obviously pitched with it,” said Red Sox pitching coach Carl Willis. “But with pitchers, with hands and fingers, it doesn’t take a lot sometimes to cause you to change a little bit of pressure that alters the release of the ball. I think when you look at his strength and his power, he’s able to compensate. Obviously it’s a lot more natural where he’s at right now.”

“Knowing he was dealing with it, only he knows how much it was affecting him,” said Red Sox manager John Farrell. “There was constant checking in with him to make sure it wasn’t putting him in a position to create further discomfort or take away from his performance, overall. We knew it was there, but to his credit he never used it as a distraction more than it might have been.”

Ironically, Kimbrel points to his knee injury as somewhat of a blessing.

Not only did the time down allow for the finger to properly heal, but gave the closer a chance to breakdown the bad habits he had fallen into partly because of the ailment.

“It did [help with the finger]. And the time with my knee really helped me heal mentally, as well,” he said. “We looked into what I was doing wrong. We were making sure my knee was healthy, but we also made sure my mechanics were going in the right direction.

“We looked at release points and yanking the ball. It was just something I did all year. Not to say I won’t have some games where I won’t do it this year, it’s just trusting my stuff and so far I’ve done that.”

What Kimbrel has been delivering this season is undeniably more powerful than what had been a somewhat up and down 2016 campaign.

Yes, he did blow his first save Thursday when allowing a second-pitch home run to Kendrys Morales in Toronto. But the fact he struck out five of his next six batters offered more proof of why Farrell trusted him to follow up Chris Sale in the first place.

Kimbrel has now faced 34 batters and struck out exactly half of them, walking just two along the way.

Thanks in part to a finger that works properly, and a year under his belt in Boston, the Red Sox have clearly found themselves an improved game-ender.

“We just dealt with it. There was nothing we could do about it,” Kimbrel said of the finger.

“Anything that happened last year I can’t go back and change it. Going into this year, I know there are going to be new obstacles. That’s part of the game. I’m just trying to enjoy each day I’ve got for what it is and not really worry about the other stuff. I have to worry about today and this year. I can’t get caught up in what happened last year, going out and trying to prove anything. All I can do is show up, play ball and do what I can do.”

Blog Author: 
Rob Bradford