For an otherwise inexcusable mistake, there was one halfway decent alibi we would have accepted from Aroldis Chapman for not backing up the plate on a bases-loaded single as the Yankees let Sunday’s game slip away in the eighth inning at Camden Yards.
Chapman, the team’s supposedly invincible closer, could have said he froze up, too stunned to move after seeing Matt Wieters slap a 101-mph fastball through the middle for the deciding two-run single. Certainly, with two outs and an 0-and-2 count, everyone else wearing a Yankees uniform must have been shocked.
But that wasn’t the reason. Chapman ended up being a bystander on that play, as Jacoby Ellsbury unleashed a wild throw to the plate, because he chose to be. So when the ball sailed past Brian McCann and allowed the lumbering Francisco Peña to score all the way from first base for a 3-1 lead, Chapman was not in position to prevent any of that from happening.
“I felt there was no chance to get the guy out,” Chapman said through his interpreter.
Fair enough. We insist on honesty from the players, and Chapman’s response certainly sounded like the truth. But that doesn’t make it right, and for a team such as the Yankees, who have been clawing to stay within 6 1⁄2 games of the division-leading Red Sox, they need to at least play the game correctly.
Joe Girardi acknowledged as much afterward, and the manager protected his closer by saying the “frustration” of that moment probably got the best of him. Girardi also blamed the 1- hour, 37-minute rain delay — it began to pour as soon as the manager signaled for Chapman in the eighth inning — for perhaps messing with his preparation.
There could be some legitimacy to that as well, even if Chapman denied it later. In that eighth inning, with the Yankees leading 1-0, the Orioles put runners at first and second against Dellin Betances, who then whiffed Nolan Reimold for the first out. With the dark clouds rapidly moving in and a stiff wind kicking up the infield dirt, Girardi trotted to the mound to remove Betances. Chapman, however, never made it as far as the outfield grass before the umpires called for the tarp.
Was that long stretch of downtime the Yankees’ undoing? Chapman had been 9-for-9 in saves this season, but when he didn’t get the opportunity to immediately attack the Orioles — and had to sit for a while instead — the situation seemed to go sideways.
Chapman temporarily put those fears to rest by striking out his first batter, Jonathan Schoop, on four straight fastballs — 98, 98, 97, 100. Then Peña, the son of Yankees coach Tony, drove an opening 99-mph heater to rightfield for a single that loaded the bases. The ball was hit so hard that the Orioles didn’t risk testing Aaron Hicks’ arm with Mark Trumbo, and Chapman had new life, a second chance to protect the 1-0 lead.
Once that happened, we figured game over. But on this day, it was Chapman’s turn to falter. After getting Wieters to 0-and-2 on a pair of 99-mph fastballs, Chapman cranked it up to 101, and Wieters still got his bat on it.
“It wasn’t surprising,” said Chapman, who has surrendered at least one run in three of his last six outings, a five-inning stretch. “Anybody can put good wood on the ball. The location wasn’t where I wanted.”
The result was another game the Yankees should have won and really couldn’t afford to lose. If this keeps up, Chapman — one of the most coveted bullpen arms for trade-hungry contenders — will be pitching in another location before too long.