CHICAGO -- Cleveland Indians star Andrew Miller isn't the only reliever who can shut down the opponent for multiple innings in this World Series. Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon displayed a sense of urgency in Game 5 on Sunday night, sending flamethrower Aroldis Chapman to the mound for a surprising eight-out performance. And Chapman was brilliant.
“You've seen a lot of that during the course of the playoffs,” Maddon said after the thrilling 3-2 Cubs victory. “It's something you can't normally do during the season without beating somebody up too badly.”
This is the same Chapman who had all sorts of trouble entering a game before the ninth inning this postseason -- and especially with men on base. But Maddon wasn’t taking any chances with the Cubs trailing 3-1 in the series. After pulling Jon Lester after just 90 pitches, then seeing Carl Edwards give up a baserunner, he went to Chapman with one out in the seventh. This was hold-your-breath, cross-your-fingers time for any Cubs supporter.
“Joe talked to me this afternoon before the game,” Chapman said through the team translator. “He asked if I could be ready possibly to come into the seventh inning, and obviously I told him, ‘I'm ready. I'm ready to go.’ And whatever he needs me to do or how long he needs me to pitch for, I'm ready for it.”
Sometimes Chapman is lights out -- as he was in the ninth -- and sometimes he’s a high-wire act. The biggest moment of his nearly three innings came with the tying run on third base in the top of the eighth inning and the dangerous Francisco Lindor at the plate.
“Lindor has been on fire and hitting the fastball really well,” catcher Willson Contreras said.
Contreras had entered the game for David Ross, who knew Chapman couldn’t be far behind. The rookie catcher essentially has become Chapman’s personal backstop. Several times he went to the mound to make sure they were on the same page. Tension began to build each time that he did. Could Chapman and Contreras pull this off and send the series back to Cleveland for Game 6 on Tuesday?
“Just wanted to slow the game down, for me and him,” Contreras said. “I was ready for the slider in the dirt.”
Rajai Davis had just stolen second base and then third, and was 90 feet from scoring the tying run with Chapman throwing bullets. As Contreras stated, Lindor has been hot, especially against fastballs, so the Cubs decided to start him out with three straight sliders. It’s not exactly the easiest pitch to catch if it’s in the dirt.
The decision was brilliant. Contreras blocked everything, and before Lindor knew what was happening -- perhaps expecting a fourth slider -- Chapman froze him with a 101-mph fastball. Inning over.
“Chapman is a horse,” Edwards said. “He’s different. He’s a different person. He’s a different breed.”
“He’s like a wizard,” Edwards laughed. “I don’t question anything Joe does.”
The Cubs have new life and may look back at the “Chapman game” as the turning point. They still need to win two in Cleveland, which will be no easy task. But if Miller can be the Indians’ go-to guy at any moment, why can’t Chapman? It’s a fascinating back-and-forth between two relievers traded by the New York Yankees to two of the best teams in the league. Miller has had his big moments in the spotlight this postseason, and Chapman just had his. It went on for 42 pitches.
“I always appreciate it if they let me know that I'm going to pitch more than the ninth inning,” Chapman said. “I physically prepared myself to come in as early as possible.”
An enigmatic figure when he arrived in Chicago, Chapman has been one of the boys, even to the point of volunteering to wake a sleeping Maddon on the team plane and asking him to the back for some drinks and laughs with the relief staff.
Maddon has returned that kindness by showing faith in the Cubs’ most valuable asset in the bullpen. Mainstays Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop are in the background now; this is Chapman’s moment. Maddon showed that on Sunday, helping the Cubs stave off elimination.
“That was our best opportunity,” Maddon explained. “I thought right now, based on the bullpen usage recently, he's actually kind of fresh. He hasn't been overused in the last part of this season nor throughout the playoffs. So, again, with him, like a lot of relief pitchers, late-inning relief pitchers, you want to talk in advance of the moment. We did. So he was definitely aware of what may happen tonight.”
Aware and happy to do it. Many felt that couldn’t or wouldn’t be the case after watching him early in the postseason. The results weren’t there and many questioned the body language, whatever that means. Chapman answered any questions with his signature performance as a Cub. And there may be even bigger ones to come this week. We have a series now.
“I'm ready for it,” Chapman said.