Hard-throwing pitcher excites Reds fans
Long before their fans became experts at deciphering 104 miles per hour from 103, the Reds were on their way to winning the National League Central.
The Reds seem unbeatable now, but not because of the math. It’s that they have something unique to baseball, something that unifies casual and diehard fans, something that sends the same surge through the dugout as it does the mezzanine.
Something that sprinkles a little destiny on ordinary contenders.
Yes, the hard-throwing, ice-veined pitching phenom dropped from the heavens (or perhaps Triple-A) into the middle of pennant fury.
Aroldis Chapman has arrived. Suddenly, it’s cool to be a Reds fan. Thanks to the 22-year-old Cuban defector, the biggest bandwagon in baseball is actually a riverboat.
“I’ve never faced a lefty that’s throwing 103,” Brewers infielder Craig Counsell said. “I don’t think any of us have, really. He’s doing something we’ve never seen.”
“He’s got,” fellow Cincinnati reliever Nick Masset said, “a gift from God.”
About now, your conscience is starting to fidget. Didn’t we just go through this? Stephen Strasburg arrived on June 8, struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates, made a franchise relevant, and probably inspired a few epic poems.
He’s having surgery on Friday.
But the fans at Great American Ballpark — where crowds are enthused yet inexplicably small — aren’t thinking about someone else’s blown-up elbow. They have visions of Francisco Rodriguez, Joba Chamberlain and David Price dancing in their heads.
Football and basketball are wonderful sports, but they have no buzz-generating cousin for baseball’s midseason call-up sensations.
Take Wednesday night, for example. Through six innings, the Reds were losing, 1-0, to the noble Milwaukee starter Chris Narveson. Without injured regulars Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips and Orlando Cabrera, the lineup was flatter than a Fayette County farm.
Then the scoreboard showed footage of Chapman warming up. The crowd went bonkers.
The left-hander received a standing ovation — for jogging to the mound.
Someone held up a sign that said CHAP-MANIA.
“It changed the energy in the ballpark,” Reds manager Dusty Baker acknowledged.
Energy change, pitching change — on this night, it was all the same in the Reds’ 6-1 triumph. The paying customers wanted to see a Cincinnati win, and they wanted to be entertained. Chapman granted both requests. The Brewers didn’t score after he entered.
The Reds, meanwhile, rallied for six in the half-inning immediately following his appearance.
Not a coincidence.
On Tuesday, Chapman retired the Brewers in order on eight pitches, seven of them strikes. He reached 103 mph on the radar gun.
On Wednesday, he did the same while needing 11 pellets. Nine were strikes. He hit 103 on the stadium gun. So much for fatigue when throwing on back-to-back days.
And actually, the FOX Sports Ohio telecast had him at 104. Twice.
I had to ask Chapman which reading was accurate.
“I don’t know,” he replied through interpreter Tomas Vera.
I mean, at that level, does it really matter?
“I can’t tell,” Baker said. “It’s like when you go to the desert. Can you tell the difference between 106 and 103?”
“He is just built and strung together in all the right ways to be a pitcher,” Masset said. “He’s put together really well — wiry, fast-twitch. We could train as hard as we could forever and ever, but we would never be able to throw that hard. He trains hard and is born with the arm strength.”
Still, Chapman isn’t the face of this team. That title belongs to MVP candidate Joey Votto, or perhaps the gritty/clutch/rejuvenated Scott Rolen. But he probably represents the Reds’ best chance to sell tickets.
The announced attendance on Monday, the night before Chapman’s debut, was less than 15,000. That’s an embarrassing figure for Cincinnati fans, who haven’t watched a playoff team since 1995. If it takes a 104 mph fastball to lure them away on a school night, well, so be it.
Chapman earned his first major-league win on Wednesday — didn’t take long, huh? — and said later that he felt even better in outing No. 2 than outing No. 1. Reds closer Francisco Cordero presented him with Wednesday’s game ball as a souvenir. Just a hunch, but it won’t be his final landmark victory.
Chapman has had the same entrance music prior to both appearances — a song by Cuban music legend Celia Cruz. According to Vera, the lyrics roughly translate to You have only one life; you must live happy and enjoy.
Cruz died seven years ago at age 78. Chapman would like to switch to something a little more contemporary, but he wouldn’t dare disturb the happy vibes. Not now. He won’t stay perfect into perpetuity, but he is going to pitch in October. This team is going places. Fast.