Bump in the road for usually dominant Aroldis
Hiccups in past two games mere smudge on reliever's season
CINCINNATI -- After two months of enjoying total domination on the mound, it's taken his past two games for Reds reliever Aroldis Chapman to get a bitter taste of how the other half lives.
Chapman's numbers from the past two games -- Thursday vs. the Pirates and Sunday's outing vs. the Tigers -- are something even the hoi polloi would turn their noses upon.
In two innings, the Cuban left-hander has taken two losses, given up three earned runs, two inherited runs, four hits, one walk with three strikeouts and one winning-run-scoring wild pitch.
"Sometimes it happens. I don't care how good you are," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "He spoiled us by being so good. He's going to return to being great real soon."
It wouldn't be fair to say Chapman's earlier results were too good to be true, because they were clearly well earned with a streamlined tempo and delivery, not to mention his often-devastating high-90, low-100-mph velocity.
Until Thursday, Chapman had begun the season by having a club-record 24 appearances without allowing an earned run. His 29 scoreless innings to start the season were a Major League best. He had only given up seven hits, and none of his nine inherited runners has scored.
"He's human. He's not a robot out there, just striking everybody out," Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco said. "He's going to go through good times and bad times, just like everybody else. For him, the key is just getting ahead and throwing good quality strikes and then going from there. From here on out, he can just get strike one."
On Wednesday vs. Pittsburgh, Chapman notched his sixth save by retiring all three batters on nine pitches, with two strikeouts. Casey McGehee got only three pitches, first fanning on 98 mph and then watching a pair of 100-mph strikes blow past him.
"As a hitter, you can't give him too much credit," McGehee said the following day. "He's going to give you a pitch to hit. [Wednesday night,] the first pitch he gave me was probably the one to hit. From there, he made two good pitches to get me. You can't go up there thinking he's going to paint something down and away. You have to stick to your guns. When he does make a mistake, you're better off not missing it."
Pirates teammates heeded that mode of thinking on Thursday as Chapman took over in the top of the 10th inning during a 4-4 game. Clint Barmes, a .191 hitter, laced a 91-mph slider for a ground-rule double to center field. Mike McKenry then scorched a 99-mph fastball to right field for the RBI single that snapped Chapman's scoreless streak.
On Sunday vs. Detroit, Chapman entered in the eighth inning to protect a three-run lead with two on. He would be trying for a six-out save. Following a first-batter single by Brennan Boesch off of 99-mph heat, Chapman hit Matt Young with a 100-mph pitch and then saw a 99-mph fastball pulled by Austin Jackson for a two-run double that touched the left-field line. The go-ahead run scored on a Chapman wild pitch in the dirt to Miguel Cabrera.
"You've got a guy coming in that can throw the ball 105 mph, and you beat him -- that's pretty good," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said.
Despite the two bad nights, Chapman still has a stingy 0.87 ERA to go with a 4-2 record in 26 games. He's walked 10 batters and struck out 55 in only 31 innings, with at least one strikeout recorded in each of his games.
"It doesn't change how any of us feel," Reds outfielder Chris Heisey said on Friday. "It's baseball, and every pitcher will give up a run here and there. I still like our chances when he's in there. As long as he keeps coming in and throwing strikes, he's going to have a great success rate."
That Chapman is even working as a reliever, let alone the Reds' closer, is a result of the club's original plan and subsequent Plan B falling through. As the 24-year-old competed for a spot in the rotation during Spring Training, newly acquired closer Ryan Madson was lost for the season because of an elbow injury. Setup man Nick Masset suffered a shoulder injury and lefty setup man Bill Bray had a groin injury.
Chapman was the Reds' best starter during camp, but his stuff also made him their best reliever. He was tapped for the eighth-inning setup role while lefty Sean Marshall was elevated from setting up to closing. By mid-May, Marshall was struggling in the ninth as Chapman looked invincible while earning two of his victories with a pair of crucial two-inning appearances.
On May 20 in New York, Baker switched Chapman to the closer's role. He was 6-for-6 in save attempts after taking over, until Sunday.
Like accomplished placekickers that push a football wide left with seconds left, and superstar hockey goaltenders that let pucks through their legs, closers are just as capable for off nights with games on the line.
Chapman's last two outings might have been a cold splash of water to the faces of Reds fans, but it was bound to happen -- even to 100-mph-throwing left-handers.
"Obviously, the ninth inning can get pretty nerve-wracking at times when a game is on the line," Reds center fielder Drew Stubbs said. "Just to have a guy come in and have the dominating stuff he has to put guys away, it's really is relief. Everybody is human, and obviously, he's going to give up some runs. Facing other closers and what we've had to deal with in the past, it's pretty nice to have a three-up, three-down inning most of the time."