CINCINNATI– An excitable buzz began stirring throughout Great American Ball Park as soon as Colorado Rockies right fielder Charlie Blackmon caught Todd Frazier’s pop fly for the final out of the bottom of the eighth inning. The buzz grew as the door to the Reds bullpen in center field opened; the crowd of 33,143 clapped rhythmically, increasing in speed and volume.
The crowd rose in unison for a standing ovation when Aroldis Chapman ran out the door’s opening, heading for a spot he had not been to since March 19. That was the last time Chapman pitched at the major league level. It was a spring training game in Surprise, Ariz., against the Kansas City Royals. It’s been well documented what happened with one swing of Salvador Perez’s bat that night, as Chapman was struck in the head by a line drive.
Brayan Pena has the pictures, those taken by camera and those imbedded in his memory, of that night and of the 7½ weeks that have passed since the accident. He added a couple of more pictures Sunday when Chapman returned to pitch in his first game of the season for the Reds and returned in typical Chapman fashion.
Chapman preserved the Reds’ 4-1 win against the Rockies by striking out Carlos Gonzalez, Nolan Arenado and Justin Morneau after walking Troy Tulowitzki on a 3-2 pitch that appeared to be good enough to be called strike three. Chapman was sharp. Chapman was blazing, reaching triple digits on the GABP radar gun repeatedly. According to MLB.com’s game stats tracker, 15 of the 21 pitches Chapman threw reached at least 100 mph, topping out at 102 mph. All five pitches he threw to Morneau were fastballs at either 100 or 101 mph.
"Words can’t describe how excited I am for him and his family because I was there when the accident occurred," said Pena, who was catching Chapman on March 19. "I was there, too, in the hospital and all the process. To see him go out there and close the game — not just close the game but the way he pitched. Seeing him come from that bullpen door was unbelievable for everybody because everybody, we were praying for him, praying for his return and for his health most importantly. It was a very emotional and touching moment for all of us, especially me. Everyone knows how close him and I are and it’s very exciting."
Pena was in the bullpen on Sunday, catching his fellow Cuban countryman as Chapman warmed up. Chapman had four rehab appearances in the minor leagues before he was activated to the Reds 25-man roster on Saturday. His two appearances this past Tuesday and Wednesday for Triple-A affiliate Louisville produced a total of one inning, eight runs allowed on seven hits, two walks, two strikeouts and one hit batter with a total of 54 pitches thrown.
Those two performances meant nothing on Sunday.
"Maybe somebody else would be worried about (Louisville) but not me," said Chapman through interpreter Tomas Vera. "I’m not going to be worried about those things. Yeah, I had two bad outings there but I know how I feel. I know I feel physically and mentally ready and I’m feeling really good so I did not put too much stock into the situation. I didn’t think about what happened in Louisville for too long."
Chapman threw first-pitch strikes to all four batters he faced. He felt the rush of adrenaline of the moment. He felt it well before he began warming up. It’s a moment he’s been anticipating for nearly two months. He has been openly appreciative of all the well wishes and prayers he’s received from fans since the accident and since his surgery to insert a three-inch plate and 12 screws onto his skull to stabilize bones fractured above his left eye.
"It was movie-like almost," said catcher Tucker Barnhart. "The place was crazy and it was really special to see him back on the field and back where he belongs."
Chapman controlled the moment instead of vice versa.
"I was excited and I was more excited when I hear the fans cheering and making noises," said Chapman. "The majority of athletes know how to control themselves. Of course I was happy but I’m able to control like in the past. I control myself and I’m able to work without any distractions."
From a baseball perspective, Chapman’s return to the Reds bullpen is a major lift for the club. He "settles" the Reds, said manager Bryan Price.
Chapman is the closer and everyone else, like Manny Parra, has their roles behind him. Parra came on to relieve Homer Bailey with one out and one on in the eighth inning. He got Blackmon, who had already homered in the game and had gone 3-for-5 with a double and a home run on Saturday, to pop out to Barnhart in foul territory and then struck out Corey Dickerson looking to end the inning.
Chapman’s return overshadowed an outstanding performance by Bailey. He gave up only the solo home run to Blackmon plus three other hits with two walks and six strikeouts. It overshadowed Parra’s job, a pair of hits and runs scored by backup shortstop Ramon Santiago and the speed of Billy Hamilton turning a bunt single in the first inning into a two-base throwing error and eventually the game’s first run.
Chapman’s return means a lot to the Reds for the remainder of this season. But Sunday was about a 7½-week moment in the making. When the game was over and the Reds were giving each other congratulations, Chapman was behind the mound at its base. He was the first one greeting his teammates in line. The last teammate he saw was Pena, who gave his friend a bear hug and lift off the ground.
"We all witnessed when he went down," said Pena. "Especially when I saw it, the picture I got so close. And now to see him back. Wow. Miracles. Miracles really happen."