CHICAGO -- This is what it should look like in mid-October for the Chicago Cubs, if they're fortunate enough to get there. Their starter goes six innings then hands the ball to three relievers including one of the most dominant lefties of his era.
Yes, Christmas has come early to Chicago as manager Joe Maddon has a new toy and his name is Aroldis Chapman. The lefty flamethrower earned his first save for his new team Thursday night in a 3-1 win against the Chicago White Sox -- and his first of more than three outs all season.
"Big moment there to get [Melky] Cabrera," Maddon said of Chapman's eighth-inning strikeout. "You always want to get the strikeout guy in there over the guy that might be able to get him out with contact. I chose to go with the strikeout."
Talk about a luxury for Maddon.
He had a perfectly capable eighth-inning pitcher in Hector Rondon on the mound but chose to bring in Chapman with the tying run on third base and two outs with his team leading 2-1. Opposing hitters are batting just .170 off Rondon, but Maddon wanted to guard against a bloop or soft grounder or any contact that might bring in the run. So here comes Chapman and his career 63.6 percent strikeout rate. Six pitches later he was out of the inning on a swinging strikeout. Three ninth-inning batters after that and he had his first save as a member of the Cubs.
"Pitching coach [Chris] Bosio had spoken to him about it," Maddon said of the four-out save. "He let us know what he was capable of doing."
Pitching on back-to-back nights, including multiple innings on night No. 2, wasn't an issue for Chapman as his velocity dipped only slightly -- meaning he was throwing 100 and 101 mph instead of 103. His slider still clocked in at 91 mph inducing Todd Frazier to swing right through it for out No. 2 in the ninth. For the second night in a row, Chapman electrified the crowd and his teammates. He even high-fived some fans on the way down to the bullpen.
"Yes I feel comfortable with them," Chapman said through interpreter Miguel Montero. "They make me feel proud of them when I go out there and the fans are cheering for me. I didn't have that in the past when I came here."
Chapman will feel plenty of love from Cubs fans if he keeps throwing the way he has the first two nights. Maddon didn't even rule him out for Friday's game, though it would be difficult to believe he'd be used a third straight day. Then again, Chapman is a freak of a nature and the Cubs intend on using every bit of his talent over the next several months. Back-to-back and two-inning saves might not be the norm, but when Maddon needs to go there he will. The bigger picture is the Cubs now have a dominant pen starting with Pedro Strop who pitched the seventh followed by Rondon and Chapman. It worked to perfection Thursday.
"Yeah, especially with Chapman in the ninth inning," Rondon said. "Strop and I are more free to pitch."
Winning pitcher John Lackey added: "It's been a cool atmosphere for sure. With him (Chapman) coming into the game last night (Wednesday). It was fun to be in the dugout. It's definitely something you want to tune in to see, for sure.
"You feel good about Strop in the seventh inning and Rondon as an eighth-inning guy is pretty special."
The potential of the bullpen now can change the whole game for a manager. Leading 2-1 in the bottom of the sixth inning, Maddon had no problem pinch hitting for Lackey with men on base even though his starter had thrown only 84 pitches. The chance at adding on runs easily outweighed taking Lackey out considering who can come in after him.
"You look down and you have Strop, Rondon and Chapman, ready to go tonight," Maddon said. "It makes it somewhat easier."
He might be saying the same thing come October.