CHICAGO — Step aside, Andrew Miller. As the World Series moves back to Cleveland for what could be a two-game fight to the finish, the Cubs have unveiled a multi-inning weapon of their own by the name of Aroldis Chapman.
This October, up to now, had been Miller’s stage, with Indians manager Terry Francona deploying him in a multitude of scenarios to challenge the conventional thinking on bullpen use. Miller’s nearly unhittable slider crowned him the ultimate high-leverage door-slammer, and his ability to enter a game at any time, for variable lengths, made him a special commodity during this postseason.
For many, Miller was going to be the reason the Indians won the World Series. Now, after what Chapman did Sunday night to seal the Cubs’ 3-2 win in Game 5, we may have to throttle back on handing the city of Cleveland another trophy just yet.
Facing elimination, a desperate Joe Maddon went to Chapman for eight outs, an unprecedented assignment. But if Francona could go to Miller to neutralize the Cubs, then Maddon could flip the script with Chapman — or at least give it a try. After all, there was no tomorrow for the Cubs.
“When it’s do or die,” catcher David Ross said, “you have to go to your best.”
Sounds logical to us. These playoffs have been all about aggressive bullpen use and testing the boundaries of the traditional setup and closer roles. On Sunday night, it was Chapman’s turn, and Maddon spoke to him before Game 5 to let him know the phone might ring much earlier than expected.
A few hours later, in the seventh inning, Chapman was summoned with one out and Mike Napoli, the tying run, on second base.
Not a typical Chapman spot during the sixth-month regular season. But on Oct. 30, to stay alive in the World Series, it was an obvious call.
“That was our best opportunity,” Maddon said. “He’s actually kind of fresh. He hasn’t been overused in the last part of this season or throughout the playoffs.”
There were a few caveats, however. Chapman had allowed 10 of 19 inherited runners to score this year, including the postseason, and it was his first appearance before the eighth inning since 2012.
For some closers — and we imagined Chapman in that group — shaking them from their usual routine, their comfort zone, is a dangerous game. That’s why the pliable Miller is so great. His flexibility makes life easier for Francona — and terrible for opposing teams. But Chapman proved he’s willing and able to do that, too. Maybe just for the remainder of this World Series, but for the Cubs, that would be enough.
He escaped the seventh by striking out Jose Ramirez and getting Roberto Perez on a grounder to second, but Wrigley was on edge for the eighth after Rajai Davis’ infield single with one out, a hit assisted by Chapman’s no-show cover of first. Anthony Rizzo made a great diving stop, and when he looked to flip to Chapman, he still was standing near the mound.
“It wasn’t anything wrong with my mental state,” Chapman said through his interpreter. “I thought the ball might have been foul, and when I saw Rizzo had a play, there was no way I was going to beat the runner.”
Davis got to third by stealing two bases, but Chapman froze Francisco Lindor with a 101-mph fastball to erase the threat. “He painted the outside corner,” said Willson Contre ras, his catcher for those innings. “That’s impossible to hit.”
By the ninth, with his pitch count into the 30s, Chapman seemed to be getting stronger. As the awakened Wrigley crowd chanted, “Let’s go, Cub-bies!” Chapman again whiffed Ramirez with another 101-mph heater to finish the Indians, who now have to be wary of a new threat back at Progressive Field.
“That was impressive,” Francona said. “I mean, kind of like what Andrew’s done. He did the same thing.”
The arms race in this World Series just got more interesting.