Reds’ LHP Aroldis Chapman brings his urban-legend fastball _ clocked at 105 _ to majors

By Joe Kay, AP
Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Reds LH Chapman arrives with 100 mph fastball

CINCINNATI — The fire alarm was squealing at Great American Ball Park when left-hander Aroldis Chapman walked through the dugout and stepped onto a major league field for the first time.

No, he hadn’t thrown one of those triple-digit fastballs yet. Just a false alarm.

This time.

The Cuban defector joined the Cincinnati Reds before their game Tuesday night against Milwaukee, with everybody eager to see how his urban-legend fastball — the one clocked at up to 105 mph in the minors — fares in the majors. Will it still sizzle?

The first time out, it sure did.

Chapman got a standing ovation from the crowd of only 19,218 when he jogged out of the bullpen to pitch the top of the eighth with the Reds leading 8-3. Fans let out a collective “ooh” after each warmup throw.

His first pitch to Jonathan Lucroy registered 98 mph, and the third one hit 102 mph, drawing a loud cheer. Chapman made quick work of the three batters he faced — a strikeout by Lucroy on an 86 mph slider and two weak ground balls by Craig Counsell and pinch-hitter Carlos Gomez. Half of his eight pitches reached triple digits, topping out at 102.

He walked off the field to another standing ovation.

Those who have seen him pitch firsthand have no doubt he can keep it up.

“There’s not a whole lot of guys like him, if any,” said pitcher Sam LeCure, who was his teammate at Triple-A Louisville.

After a moment’s pause, LeCure said, “There’s none.”

How’s that for an advance billing?

The 22-year-old pitcher who defected from Cuba only 13 months ago arrived in the middle of a pennant race on Tuesday. The Reds had won 12 of their last 16 games, pulling away to a six-game lead over St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central.

The Reds already are talking playoffs in Cincinnati. And Chapman’s name is part of the conversation. The Reds are confident he can handle the pressure of coming out of the bullpen with a pennant race riding on each triple-digit pitch.

“I think he can handle it,” manager Dusty Baker said. “Because if you can handle pitching for food, you can certainly handle pitching here.”

He was referring to Chapman’s background in Cuba, where his ability to throw so hard made him a big-league commodity. The Reds gave him a six-year, $30.25 million deal in January, expecting him to join the rotation at some point during the season.

With more than enough starters, they moved Chapman to the bullpen last month and he excelled. A fastball that was clocked at 101 mph on scouts’ radar guns in spring training seemed to get better. He didn’t allow a hit in his last eight appearances out of the bullpen, dominating hitters who couldn’t catch up with the fastball or handle the slider and changeup that go with it.

His teammates in Louisville marveled. Whenever Chapman was on the mound, everyone watched the board in right-center field that showed the speed pitch at Louisville Slugger Field.

Even the players couldn’t help but look.

“Every time he lets one go, everybody turns around or peaks,” second baseman Chris Valaika said. “You don’t want to get caught looking, but you see 104 — that’s something you’ve never seen before.”

Valaika said Chapman topped out at 104 mph while he was there. A few days ago, one of his pitches registered 105 mph. Even if the radar in Louisville is off by a couple miles per hour, that’s still well above the speed limit for just about everybody else.

Imagine what that’s like when the lanky pitcher with the long stride lets it go from less than 60 feet away.

“It looks like what you’re thinking it looks like — it’s MOVING,” Valaika said. “And I’m really glad he’s on our side.”

The Reds brought him up before Sept. 1 to make sure he would be eligible for postseason play. Chapman might get the chance to do what left-hander David Price did for Tampa Bay two years ago, when the highly valued starter got a chance to relieve during a pennant race.

The Rays called him up in September — he was eligible for postseason play because of a loophole in the rules — and he helped them get to the World Series, where they lost to Philadelphia.

There’s another precedent. In 2002, the Angels called up Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez in September, got him on the postseason roster and let him take them to their first World Series title. He tied a postseason record with five wins, set a relief record with 28 playoffs strikeouts, and at age 20 became the youngest pitcher ever to win a World Series game.

Could Chapman bring some September sizzle to the Reds?

“You don’t know how it’s going to end up,” Baker said.

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