The Cubs imagined all the possibilities in October when they made that blockbuster trade for Aroldis Chapman – and now they will be playing in November.
Chapman’s 42nd and final pitch registered at 101 mph on the big Wrigley Field video board late Sunday night as the superstar closer struck out Jose Ramirez swinging to preserve a 3-2 win over the Cleveland Indians and force a Game 6 in a World Series that has absolutely lived up to the hype.
Chapman notched the last eight outs in a must-win game, showing the kind of creativity, flexibility and presence that didn’t automatically come in that deal with the New York Yankees in late July. Where the Indians keep pushing bullpen limits, there were times where Cubs manager Joe Maddon didn’t quite know how to use his shiny new toy.
All along, Chapman’s preference has been working one inning at a time, without traffic on the bases, his powerful left arm unleashing fastball after fastball. But down 3-1 and on the brink of elimination, Maddon discussed this exact scenario before the game with president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and brought the idea to his closer.
“Joe talked to me this afternoon,” Chapman said through a translator. “He asked if I could be possibly ready to come into the seventh inning. Obviously, I told him, ‘I’m ready. I’m ready to go.’
“Whatever he needs me to do, or how long he needs me to pitch, I’m ready for it.”
With a one-run lead, Maddon pulled Jon Lester – the $155 million ace with two World Series rings already – after 90 pitches and gave the ball to rookie Carl Edwards Jr. for two hitters. Mike Napoli’s single and Willson Contreras’ passed ball put a runner in scoring position before Edwards forced Carlos Santana to fly out to left field.
“Joe’s a wizard,” Edwards said. “I feel like he’s been doing this for a hundred years.”
Chapman hadn’t pitched in the seventh since 2012 with the Cincinnati Reds and would have to throw a career-high 2.2 innings. He escaped this jam, striking out Ramirez the first time and working around the 99.3-mph first-pitch fastball that drilled Brandon Guyer.
In front of an anxious crowd of 41,711 watching the Cubs one final time before Wrigley Field goes dark this year, Chapman didn’t cover first base when Anthony Rizzo made a diving stop in the eighth inning. Rajai Davis took advantage of that infield single – and Chapman’s slow delivery to home plate – to steal two bases.
But Chapman responded by striking out Francisco Lindor – Cleveland’s No. 3 switch-hitter and an emerging playoff star – looking. As Contreras, the rookie catcher, said: “He banged the outside corner with 102 miles an hour. That’s impossible to hit.”
“I don’t know if you ever anticipate asking a guy to get eight outs, but he was phenomenal,” Epstein said. “He really embraced the challenge and pitched. He threw a huge changeup to Napoli. He threw a bunch of really good sliders. He blacked out an amazing fastball to Lindor in a big spot. It was a great performance.”
The Cubs passed when the Yankees wanted Kyle Schwarber or Javier Baez as the starting point to any multiplayer deal for Andrew Miller, who wound up with Cleveland by the deadline and has given up one run during 17 postseason innings, getting at least four outs in each of his nine playoff appearances and becoming such a weapon for Indians manager Terry Francona.
Chapman answered the doubts about whether or not he could leave his comfort zone and stretch out like Miller – and now the Cubs get another chance to do it again on Tuesday night in Cleveland.
“It was a big ask,” Francona said. “We’ve done it here, too. Nobody’s ever just run into the bat rack when Chapman comes into the game. I can guarantee you that.”