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Aroldis Chapman’s fastball shows vulnerability

Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman throws during

Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman throws during the eighth inning of Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016, in Chicago. Photo Credit: AP / David J. Phillip

CHICAGO

Funny thing about that 102.3-mph fastball Aroldis Chapman threw to Adrian Gonzalez during the pivotal eighth inning of NLCS Game 1 Saturday night.

It went out faster than it came in.

According to Statcast, the analytical wing of MLB.com, Gonzalez’s line-drive single, which drove in two runs and tied the score at 3, traveled at a velocity of 104.7 mph off the bat into centerfield. Simple physics, maybe, but impressive nonetheless. And it illustrated something else about playing the game at the major-league level, especially during the postseason.

Even fastballs that crack the 100-mph barrier can be vulnerable, and Chapman, for all his sizzle, is only human. That makes us wonder if Cubs manager Joe Maddon will continue to use him as an emergency fire extinguisher rather than a more traditional late-inning weapon.

To be fair, Saturday night’s misstep involved a single pitch, and it came after Maddon summoned Chapman for a Mission Impossible scenario in the eighth. Cubs up 3-1, bases loaded, none out. And Chapman almost survived it, whiffing Corey Seager with a 101-mph fastball and then cranking it up to 103 to get a swinging Yasiel Puig.

But after throwing exclusively fastballs that inning, Chapman did the same to Gonzalez, who didn’t miss his 102-mph pitch. As soon as Gonzalez connected, the Wrigley crowd fell into a hushed silence, shocked by what they had just witnessed. Maddon was no different.

“It is stunning when it occurs,” he said before Game 2 Sunday night.

To those of us who don’t hit baseballs for a living, trying to track a triple-digit pitch is an impossible feat. A projectile moving at that speed would be a grayish blur passing through our sightline. But for someone like Gonzalez, there is a percentage chance of making contact, just as the Giants’ Conor Gillaspie did in belting a two-run triple off Chapman in Game 3 of the Division Series. He also drilled a 102-mph heater.

“You just throw fastballs, it’s going to get hit,” Gonzalez told the Boston Herald late Saturday night. “Doesn’t mean it’s going to get hit all the time, but eventually it’s going to get hit. He knows he’s got to mix it up. But you know he’s probably waiting till two strikes to mix it up. Thank God I put the ball in play there.”

It’s probably safe to assume that Chapman will be sneaking in a few more sliders the next time he’s called upon. And Maddon insists — for now — that despite Chapman’s past failures in those situations, he’s not giving up on summoning him for six-out saves with traffic on the basepaths.

In the NLDS, Chapman entered with runners at first and second before Gillaspie’s drive in Game 3. In NLCS Game 1, the bases were full.

As a result, he has allowed 10 of 17 inherited runners to score, counting both the regular season and playoffs. Based on those numbers, it doesn’t seem to be an assignment he’s entirely comfortable with — many closers prefer a clean slate for their arrival — and Maddon went out of his way to defend Chapman’s performance after Game 1.

Fortunately for the Cubs, they wound up winning the game, 8-4, so Chapman’s costly hiccup didn’t blow up to be the problem it might have been on this stage. Maddon acknowledged that his closer was upset but stressed the importance of what he was able to do, and that was keep the score tied at 3 after the single by Gonzalez.

“I’m here to tell you that he did a great job [Saturday] night — not just an OK job,” Maddon said. “By not relinquishing the lead right there, that permits us to do what we did and also kept their better relief pitchers out of the game. So in that particular moment, even though on the surface you might argue that he did not, he actually did come through, I think. I want to make sure that he understands that we could not have won that game without what he did.”

That’s one way to look at it. As for Chapman’s view, he wasn’t immediately available afterward, but he had to be frustrated. We won’t know if there’s any lasting impact, however, until he takes the mound again.

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