Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman (54) delivers a pitch during the top of the 9th inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Great American Ball Park. The Reds won the game 3-2.
Robert Leifheit/Rob Leifheit-USA TODAY Sports
CINCINNATI — They gathered in the Cincinnati Reds bullpen early Monday afternoon as if somebody was passing out stacks of $100 bills.
To the Reds, what was going on in the bullpen was worth about $30 million and even general manager Walt Jocketty was there among the many observers to watch Aroldis Chapman throw off a mound.
How did he do? The catcher’s glove always pops louder when Chapman throws his 100 miles an hour fastball, but in the confinement of the bullpen it sounded as if somebody was setting off bunker busters.
The smile on Chapman’s face was as broad as the Ohio River behind him in Great American Ball Park as he threw 25 pitches, 25 very hard pitches, on his first trip on the mound since March 19.
On that fateful day during a spring training game in Surprise, Ariz., Kansas City’s Salvador Perez lined one off Chapman’s face. Chapman fell face-first on the grass near the mound, legs flailing behind him.
He suffered a mild concussion and facial fractures that required a permanent plate in his head. Some wondered if he would pitch again this season.
So it was less than a month after the incident and the surgery that Chapman was wearing his uniform and throwing 100 miles an hour. Reds manager Bryan Price said he will do several more bullpens before he throws live batting practice, the next gigantic step.
"I felt really good and everything went well," said Chapman through his translator, team assistant trainer Tomas Vera. "My fastball was good, my command was good, my breaking ball was good. Everything was great."
About getting to face live hitters, Chapman said, "I’ll do what they decided to do with me. I have to wait to see what the doctor’s decision is, what (manager) Bryan Price’s decision is. Whatever they tell me, I have to do it. I feel physically and mentally great, my arm feels really good right now."
My fastball was good, my command was good, my breaking ball was good. Everything was great.
-- Aroldis Chapman
So far the 26-year-old closer they call the Cuban Misslle, hasn’t missed much over the first 12 games of the season. The club has had only two save opportunities, one blown in New York by J.J. Hoover on a grand slam home run by Ike Davis and one converted by Manny Parra.
But it is beyond obvious that the Reds want their left hander, who had touched 105 miles an hour on the radar gun, back as soon as he has clearance.
Manager Price was one of the horde gathered around Chapman in the bullpen and Price’s smile was as wide as Chapman’s.
"He was really leaning on it for 25 pitches. He threw the ball outstanding, threw all his pitches, including his slider," said Price. "He was sharp. He was extremely enthusiastic and happy to be out there, as we all were to see him. It was exciting."
Price said Chapman throwing off the mound was a positive step, but the ultimate challenge is the day he walked to the mound to face enemy hitters in a game situation. And that isn’t yet close.
"The next thing is live batting practice, facing batters," said Price. "That will be his biggest initial hurdle. But we haven’t seen any reason to feel that he isn’t anything but optimistic to get back on the mound to face hitters."
Price said Chapman will throw, "A handful of bullpen sessions before he faces live hitters. His next step is another bullpen."
When Chapman throws live batting practice, a big question is whether he will throw from behind a protective screen or throw unprotected.
"I can’t say with certainty, but it will be what he is comfortable with," said Price. "That’s up to him, an offer, a courtesy to anybody coming back from getting hit in the face. Sometimes, though, the screen forces you to throw the ball and finish your delivery behind it and that affects the mechanics in a negative way. That’s why I don’t like the screen. We’ll see. He’ll have that option."
That said, Price said, "We all know the big test will be when he gets back into game, into competition."
There is a chance the Reds could get left-handed bullpen help by the end of the week. But it isn’t Chapman. It is setup man Sean Marshall, who missed most of last year and all of spring training with a fatigued shoulder.
He is expected to make an appearance Tuesday at Triple-A Louisville and then come back and pitch another inning on Wednesday.
"After he pitches back-to-back games we’ll assess where he is in his rehab," said Price. "There’s a chance he could be back by the end of the week. We certainly don’t want to put the cart in front of the horse. We want him to get through those outings in Louisville, his first time to go back-to-back. That would be the huge step in the right direction."