Aroldis Chapman’s natural power met the force of Javier Baez’s vicious swing during Tuesday afternoon’s scrimmage at Wrigley Field, the baseball literally bursting at the seams on a foul tip.
From the Ricketts family seats, you could see Chapman’s slider dart and hear his fastball pop inside an empty ballpark as the Cubs tried to stay sharp before Friday night’s Game 1 against the National League’s wild-card winner.
The San Francisco Giants tried to trade for Chapman, but couldn’t put together the 4-for-1 deal the Cubs made with the New York Yankees in late July. The Giants now have to beat New York Mets ace Noah Syndergaard in a one-game playoff on Wednesday night at Citi Field, primarily because their bullpen led the majors with 30 blown saves.
The Cubs rationalized the superstar closer’s 30-game suspension to begin this season under Major League Baseball’s domestic-violence policy by figuring they would rather be with Chapman in October than facing his 100-mph default-setting fastball.
The Cubs now have a ninth-inning answer for Jeurys Familia, who finished all four games for the Mets during last year’s NL Championship Series. The day after getting swept, Theo Epstein’s front office brainstormed ways to improve a 97-win team, from signing a big-game pitcher (John Lackey) to diversifying the lineup (Ben Zobrist) to improving the outfield defense (Jason Heyward) to controlling the running game (Willson Contreras).
The finishing piece would be Chapman, an upcoming free agent who joined a team that already had a 98.8-percent chance to make the playoffs on the Baseball Prospectus odds report and a 56-1 record when leading entering the ninth inning.
“There are certain attributes that you do keep in mind, that maybe take on greater emphasis in the postseason,” Epstein said, hours before Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter didn't use Zach Britton in a 5-2, 11-inning loss to the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League wild-card game. “One obvious example is your closer pitches to a much greater percentage of hitters in the postseason than he does in the regular season, because with the off-days, he can pitch every game. You’re more likely to use him for more than just three outs. And it’s the end of the year and everything’s on the line, so you put the ball in the hands of your best pitcher.
“That played into our trade for Chapman a little bit, to get a guy who’s that dominant and have him on your side in the postseason in some really big situations. We were certainly mindful of the postseason when we made that move.”
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After taking all questions – and describing a direct phone conversation with Chapman that became a precondition for the deal – the Cubs didn’t seem nearly as prepared for his first press conference with the Chicago media, the closer coming across as disinterested and the team ultimately forced to hire a new translator.
“I don’t think too many people think about that now when he’s on the mound,” Epstein said.
Not sure about that, but Chapman has been as good as advertised, going 16-for-18 in save chances with a 1.01 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 26.2 innings for the Cubs, creating a moment of suspense before his velocity is shown on the Wrigley Field video board.
In the end, the Cubs traded for Chapman to get the final out of the World Series, and anything short of that will be an epic disappointment.
“Chapman’s been wonderful as a Cub,” Epstein said. “He’s fit in great in the clubhouse. The behavior’s been exactly what you had asked for since he’s been here. And he’s been outstanding on the mound. Guys love having him around. That’s certainly a trade that we’re glad that we made. Love having him as part of this team.”