Aroldis Chapman blew away Mike Olt with four straight fastballs. The first one hit 99 mph. The next three clocked 100 mph. Game. Over.
That’s how the dominant, mysterious Cincinnati Reds closer sent everyone home on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, closing out a 3-2 victory over the Cubs. Welcome to the National League Central.
It’s not as glamorous as the old American League East that made Theo Epstein a legend throughout New England for taking down the Evil Empire. Or Joe Maddon a big celebrity for transforming the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in their David and Goliath story against the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.
But this division features five teams that are going for it now, and the Cubs manager knows what that means for Jorge Soler and Arismendy Alcantara and eventually Kris Bryant and Javier Baez.
“You have to beat the best to be the best,” Maddon said. “So I love when your own division is very, very competitive. I think young players get better sooner because they got to show up every day. Otherwise, you will be embarrassed.
“When you’re playing good teams, you really have to show up, and I think our division’s going to really draw that out of our young players.”
Jake Arrieta learned that the hard way with the Baltimore Orioles. Arrieta blossomed after that change-of-scenery trade in July 2013, taking two no-hitters into the seventh inning against the Reds last season.
“Nothing is going to be handed to you,” said Arrieta, who retired the first nine Reds before a three-run fourth inning. “You’re having to face guys that are the best of the best, day in, day out, series after series. So, yeah, you have no choice but to grow up quick, or else you’re going to be shipped out.
“Playing that level of competition really escalates your development. It has to. Because if you want to survive there, you have to find ways to get it done.
“We’re in the thick of it right here in the Central. It’s no slouch.”
Except for that one inning, Arrieta (1-1, 1.98 ERA) again looked like a frontline guy against the Reds (5-3). But the only offense this lineup could generate came from pinch-hitter/No. 3 catcher Welington Castillo, who hit a two-run homer off ex-Cub Kevin Gregg in the eighth inning. The Cubs (4-3) ran out of late-game magic against Chapman, falling out of first place.
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Epstein’s front office and veteran players viewed as short-term assets have talked about the urgency of getting off to a good start the last few years, so the team wouldn’t get blown up at the trade deadline.
Now, the Cubs hope to be buyers on July 31, and 25 of their first 31 games come against Central opponents.
“The start is just so essential, especially when you’re in a really competitive division,” Epstein said. “We put ourselves in a big hole the last few years. I think we have more talent this year and we have a more realistic chance to go do some damage and really compete.
“(But) focus on getting off to a good start. It’s so important in this division.”
It’s not necessarily the same as going into Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium.
But everyone knows about the St. Louis Cardinals and their 11 World Series titles. The Reds have made the playoffs three times since 2010. The Pittsburgh Pirates are coming off back-to-back seasons winning a wild card. The Milwaukee Brewers spent 159 days in first place last season.
“You got to take charge of your division,” Maddon said. “You have to ascend within your division. Nobody’s going to be just giving us anything here. Not at all. We have to go out there and take that momentum. We have to take our place within the division. As it should be.”