BALTIMORE — At 103 mph, the velocity was back Tuesday night for Aroldis Chapman, who was one of the very few positive takeaways for the Yankees from an otherwise crushing 7-6 walk-off loss to the Orioles at Camden Yards.
Chapman pitched a perfect eighth inning to safeguard a 6-5 lead, and with Dellin Betances teeing up Manny Machado’s two-run winning blast, it certainly prompts the question: Does Chapman believe he’s ready to be the Yankees’ closer again?
“I’ve been a closer for a long time in my career,” Chapman said through his interpreter after the loss. “But that’s not the focus here. For me, I need to be ready to pitch whenever they need me. The other guys closing games right now are very good pitchers. What matters now is winning. Whenever they want me to pitch, I’ll be ready.”
Chapman’s appearance Tuesday was only his second in 11 days, and Joe Girardi chose to use him in a high-leverage spot, after Tommy Kahnle got the final two outs of the sixth inning and David Robertson fired a 1-2-3 seventh. By doing so, Chapman got to avoid the top half of the Orioles’ fearsome lineup, and he retired both Trey Mancini and Mark Trumbo on groundouts. With Davis, Chapman went to a full count before freezing him with a 102-mph fastball.
“That was a good sign,” Girardi said, “because we’re going to need him.”
While that’s become a popular refrain for the Yankees’ manager, Girardi has left Chapman’s demotion open-ended. With Robertson and Betances at his disposal, Girardi has never felt compelled to rush back Chapman in the closer’s role, regardless of the fact that he was signed to a five-year, $86-million for precisely that job.
The long layoff has probably helped Chapman recharge to some degree, as his velocity has been more consistently in the 102-103 range during his last two appearances. Chapman threw only one slider during his 11-pitch stint Tuesday night, but his fastball location was sharp, which is an improvement. As a result, Chapman appears to be more confident on the mound, and that needs to be an integral component for him to be successful.
The emergence of Chad Green as a strikeout machine has helped lessen the damaging effect of the diminished Chapman. But for the Yankees’ bullpen to be operating at maximum efficiency, returning Chapman to critical late-inning roles would be a huge boost for a team whose 23 blown saves are the second-most in the majors.