CHICAGO — The cheers in the ninth inning Wednesday at Wrigley Field came with a delay. That’s because after each of new Chicago Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman’s pitches, the sold-out crowd had to wait a split-second before the number appeared on the scoreboard. Then the buzz built.
Chapman didn’t make it over 103 in his Cubs debut, but only one of his 13 fastballs thrown to the Chicago White Sox clocked in under 100 mph. He pitched a 1-2-3 ninth inning and struck out two in a blowout 8-1 win. In the process, he electrified fans and new teammates alike.
“It’s a sight to see,” winning pitcher Jason Hammel said after the game. “I’ve never seen anything like it. That’s impressive. It’s jaw-dropping.”
Hammel joked that he wasn’t that impressed, considering the fastest Chapman threw Wednesday was a couple miles per hour off his season high. Of course, Chapman had to generate his own adrenaline because he was pitching with a large lead. But the crowd must have helped. The fans were standing for every pitch as Chapman kept firing away.
“It was a pretty exciting moment,” Chapman said through catcher Miguel Montero, who interpreted for him. “The crowd pumped me up a little more.”
The Cubs’ revamped bullpen looked dominant in its first outing with former closer Hector Rondon taking over the eighth inning. He too set the White Sox down in order, looking every bit as good from the right side as Chapman did from the left — other than those velocity numbers, of course. Those three-digit numbers separate the lefty from the rest of the human species.
“It’s just entertaining to watch the [radar] gun,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s a different kind of a pitcher. You see that every 100 years or so.”
Actually, baseball has never seen anything like Chapman, who is throwing harder than ever. His new teammates are already in awe.
“I remember when we first met. I told him, ‘You can throw as hard as you want to me. Just don’t hit me,’” second baseman Javier Baez said with a smile.
Shortstop Addison Russell said: “It was awesome. Standing behind him throwing is a different story. It’s pretty huge to know if we get in any trouble in the ninth, he can come in and minimize things.”
Chapman allows Maddon to pitch some of his better arms in key spots earlier in the game. On Wednesday, Rondon was warming up in the seventh inning, when the score was tied 1-1. That would never have happened a few days ago. Chapman’s presence lengthens the bullpen to a point we haven’t seen with the Cubs in a long time — if ever.
“It’s a huge lift for everyone,” newcomer Joe Nathan said. “We all know we can cover some ground down there. It helps when you can throw that hard. You can get away with a lot of mistakes.”
There were no mistakes from Chapman on Wednesday. He threw almost all fastballs, except for a 91 mph slider that struck out Jose Abreu to lead off the inning. That seems almost unfair.
Better them than us, the Cubs say.
“Sooner or later down the line, we [would] have to face him, so it’s good that we got him,” Russell said. “I don’t have to turn around [to see the radar gun] because there is another one right there [in front], but I’m definitely keeping up with the mph.”
Fans won’t be leaving games at Wrigley early any time soon. If they’re on their feet for every pitch in a blowout, what will it be like in a close game? Where will Chapman’s adrenaline go for that? How will the opposition combat a rabid fan base supporting their newest bullpen toy?
Chapman has been called a game-changer, and he might very well change everything about the Cubs and their bullpen for the next two months — or longer.
“That’s a confidence-booster for us and a morale kick for anyone out there,” Hammel said. “And for the other side, it’s got to be black clouds.”