Aroldis Chapman might have played his final game as a Chicago Cub, but his 8-out save during Game 5 of World Series might be Cubs most vital moment ever.
The World Series ended two weeks ago. What do you remember most when thinking back on the 2016 Chicago Cubs season?
Most people will start off with winning the World Series for the first time since 1908, with others chiming in with Game 7! The back and forth affair, between the Cubs and Cleveland Indians, 176 years of combined misery, with all the ups-and-downs, various subplots and underlying themes between the two franchises.
Next, others might talk about MVP candidate Kris Bryant or the Cubs having the league's best record all season.
There were a ton of positive moments in 2016 for the champion Cubs, and while there are no wrong answers to the question of what one most remembers during such a magical ride, there certainly is a critical hero that came through when the team needed it most.
Game 7 is a microcosm for the way the World Series as a whole went. The Cubs as a franchise went. Look strong early, followed by a type of unimaginable mixed with are you kidding me. For all the momentum Cleveland had Games 1 through 4, the tide changed and a wrinkle of that which may be forgotten, or in part glossed over, is the brilliance of closer Aroldis Chapman during Game 5.
Without his part in securing the Cubs do-or-die victory to send the series back to Cleveland, the Cubs may or may not have won the World Series anyway. While it was Bryant and the rest of the offense that gave starter Jon Lester a lead to work with, Chapman was called upon for the most critical eight outs of the Cubs season. The most critical eight outs of the Cubs franchise.
If that sounds a tad over the top, consider the 103-win team, a wire-to-wire, first place club with its division title and home-field advantage, not winning the whole thing. Another episode of wait til next year would just completely disenchant its fan base, and derail its good charm put forth in 2016. It would devalue next year because as good of a season they’ll likely have, after 103 wins, what else could this team do April through September?
It’s all about October. This was the year and it had to happen. Now.
Forget 2008 when the club won its most games since 1945, only to be erased in three relatively easy games by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Or 2003 and every other year before this one. The difference between those teams and this team was vastly different.
Those teams were at times, a hodgepodge of randomness thrown into a pot yielding pleasant results. This 2016 team was a stew, at least five years prior in the making, simmering to perfection. From Epstein’s mouth to Cubs fans ears. This 2016 version of the Cubs were still those Cubs, for every day which passed without a World series title. But at the same time this 2016 Cubs team was oh-so-much different from anything its fans could ever relate to.
While few doubted that this was the team that was finally, ultimately going to get it done, doubts surely crept up on those as the team willfully kept fighting adversity, in the form of silent bats and great pitching throughout its postseason run, and as it looked as though the magic had run its course as the Cubs stared straight at defeat in the World Series.
The promises that had been made, and the players having done all the talking with their mouths, now had to do it where it mattered most.
On the field.
Now, in the moment of being down three games to one, trying to protect a 1-run lead and surviving to see another day, the Cubs went to perhaps the most controversial man of 2016.
This guy was tasked with staying in the moment, but ultimately, and while simultaneously carrying the brunt of 108 years of frustration, goats, black cats, false hope and renewed promise on his back, on what would eventually become a franchise-defining night, by a season-defining, and now, franchise-defining pitcher.
July 25th, 2016
Chicago acquired Aroldis Chapman in a trade from the New York Yankees, armchair GMs saying the Cubs gave too much for a set-to-be free agent following the 2016 World Series.
Of course now its easy to say the move by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to acquire the fireballer from the Yankees near last season’s trade deadline has proven to be fruitful, and while costly — Cubs No 1. prospect Gleyber Torres and No. 5 outfield prospect Billy McKinney headlining the package — this was the kind of move that signified to the organization, its fan base and the rest of Major League Baseball that the Cubs, with the majors’ best record, were all in.
“If not now, when?”
That was Epstein when addressing the trade bringing in Chapman from The Bronx, and specifically with reference to the weeks drawn out internal discussions regarding bringing in the embattled closer with owner Tom Ricketts. It also included talking with Chapman on the phone before the trade.
Stemming from an Oct. 30, 2015 domestic violence situation, Chapman had been accused of choking his girlfriend and pushing her against a wall. Following the argument, she hid in the bushes outside, when Chapman allegedly fired eight shots from his gun inside the garage of his home.
The risk that goes into any trade was two-fold considering Champman’s domestic violence incident. With this topic becoming too prevalent across the sporting landscape, it’s perfectly acceptable to understand the displeasure of bringing the man aboard. While never charged by police, due to conflicting stories, lack of cooperation from witnesses and no physical injuries, MLB still moved forward in suspending the closer 30 games to start the 2016 season.
“I don’t feel like we compromised integrity in making this move. We approached it as thoroughly as we did…to make sure we preserved our integrity,” said Epstein regarding the trade via David Haugh, Chicago Tribune.
It should go without saying, I, nor anyone that I know, condone any type of verbal or physical violence. There’s no place for it in our society and I applaud our sports looking to eliminate it at all costs. Regardless of being charged or not, Chapman admitted he should have exercised better judgement, apologized for his mistake, and served a 30 game suspension doled out by commissioner Rob Manfred without appeal.
Should it have been more than 30 games? If it was more than 30, I wouldn’t argue that and this entire story might be a moot point.
While we may never really know what happened that Halloween Eve, Commissioner Manfred had to make an example of Chapman that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated. In this case, regardless of being charged or not, the accusations brought forth against Chapman, including a dozen police officers being called to his home, upon firing a gun and admittance of poor character and a mistake on his part, is more than enough to act.
If Chapman was not lawfully guilty of anything, he had still put himself, and others, in a situation that should have been avoided, and could have had a much worse outcome.
Through all of this, and keeping in perspective with what we know did happen, and not what could have happened, I wasn’t going to personally blackball Chapman. I’ve thought about this immensely, and this is a very delicate situation. It’s a tricky business trying to proceed with baseball matters, while also juggling the potential legal fallout, but also trying to eradicate this very black eye of domestic violence.
Through all of the perfectly justifiable responses from those that would not want the now-embattled closer on their team, while also proceeding with the notion that following suspension, this same man was free to pursue his baseball career. The object is to try to make your team better and to win. Chapman represents a great deal in helping any team he pitches for better, and the New York Yankees were able to jump in and make a deal with the Cincinnati Reds, undoubtedly getting him for less than would have initially been a steep price prior to legal trouble.
The intent here is not to present a case that a player can throw 100-mph and more, so lets look the other way. This was perfectly valid for fans to not want Chapman on their team following the incident, and it was Chapman’s opportunity to rise above his now troubled past, and prove to be a better person.
Following suspension, he rejoined his new team, and looked to move forward, the constant reminder of what had happened still in his rearview mirror. The Yankees got the results you expect (20 saves, 2.01 ERA).
Going All In
Joe Maddon’s most go-to reliever was Aroldis Chapman as he made 13 postseason appearances, throwing 15.2 innings. Mike Montgomery, another midseason acquisition who later pitched the most important out in Cubs’ World Series history a few nights later, was second with 14.1 innings through 11 games. No other reliever threw more than 6.1 innings the entire postseason.
Anyone can spin the what-if game a thousand different ways, but in keeping with the same scenario of a Cubs team in Game 5 down three games to one, and up 3-2 late, this is where it pays to have that bullpen ace.
So, anyway, when the trade happened there were those armchair GM grumblings regarding what they gave up, and one could argue the Cubs had been just fine with then-closer Hector Rondon — 18 saves, 1.95 ERA as closer — but the Cubs knew what the addition of Chapman could mean.
Looking back on the Kansas City Royals 2015 bullpen, and even what the Yankees had put together, a 3-headed monster of Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances and Chapman at the beginning of 2016, that short-lived group formulated one of the more feared trios the game had seen. The emergence of dominating relievers stole the show in the 2016 postseason, especially Miller — the Yankees were rumored to want eventual Cubs World Series folk hero Kyle Schwarber in a deal involving Miller — named ALCS MVP for Cleveland. Quite possibly the most famed-middle reliever in postseason history to date.
Recent history became a type of blueprint for future postseason success, and pitchers are the commodity that teams can never have enough of. Especially in the form of Aroldis Chapman. The price steep as it was, it was a trade that Epstein and Hoyer could afford to make. Addison Russell and even Javier Baez solidified the shortstop position. Outfield is also crowded as the Cubs have a surplus at the major league level.
You think Cubs fans were going to fret over the possibility of losing two top prospects, who had yet to play above Double-A, if it meant taking a serious stab at a World Series title, and winning it?
At the time of the trade I defended the move because there’s no greater signal that this team is all in. If you lose, you know you gave it your all. If you win, then the Cubs have won the World Series after 108 years.
Epstein had cultivated a top-flight farm system by stocking up on prospects, and who are now continuously churning out at the Major League level. The Cubs were put into a position to win and now Epstein was doing whatever it took to get it done. What else can you ask of a team?
Chapman’s arrival to Chicago brought with him his decorated 100-mph and counting fastball. In 2014 he threw 395 100-mph pitches, with Kelvin Herrera of the Kansas City Royals coming in second with 57. In 2015 he doused batters with 452 pitches of 100-mph or more.
The 2016 season was much the same, this time climbing to 526 such instances. Mauricio Cabrera, a rookie for the Atlanta Braves, came in second with 344. Noah Syndergaard of the New York Mets was a distant third. The totals for Chapman are also amazing considering he only threw only 58.0 innings between both New York and Chicago.
The resume was daunting, and the accomplishments staggering, it’s no surprise why the Yankees wanted to acquire the flamethrower in order to shorten the game to six innings with the rest of Miller and Betances at the time of their trade with the Reds last December.
Chapman’s career in Chicago likely over, his part in the teams’ success is as integral to the Cubs World Championship as any player on the 25-man roster, the teams’ 2016 40-man roster, its manager, coaching staff, front office and all the tireless scouts that helped assemble a champion.
Forget Game 7 when Chapman served up the game-tying home run in the 8th inning to Rajai Davis.
Though the fan in me went absurdly numb watching that hanging pitch, down and in, ending up in the left field seats, and though I instantly started to hate Chapman more and more as the game went on and sure victory was looking less-sure, the Cubs aren’t even in that Game 7 without the brilliant, gutsy performance of Chapman’s 8-out save in Game 5.
“Every time the manager has talked to me about pitching in the eighth, I’ve said yes. If things don’t go well at times, that happens,” Chapman said, via Jorge L. Ortiz/USA Today Sports.It’s also worth noting that just days before Game 5, as Ortiz mentions, Maddon had this to say regarding Chapman’s usage:
“A guy like Aroldis, to ask him to attempt to dump his routine right now or in the postseason and do something else, I think you’re looking for failure right there. To just haphazardly throw him in the sixth, seventh, or ninth, I think would be very difficult to do.’’That was Oct. 26, just days before Game 5, and the Cubs only trailed the series 1-0. While Ortiz’s article was more about the difference of using Miller for multiple innings, and why Chapman isn’t necessarily that kind of pitcher, or at least why he wouldn’t necessarily be used for multiple innings at a time, and though Maddon implies he wouldn’t ask that of Chapman, there’s an obvious difference in trailing a series 1-0 and trailing 3-1. It’s also worth noting that unlike Chapman, who was brought into Chicago to be the closer, Miller, though capable of bing a closer in his own right, was brought into Cleveland to serve as part of the setup role to closer Cody Allen. The buck didn’t necessarily end with Miller. It might with Chapman. So despite what Maddon was on the record of saying, he never ruled out using Chapman for more than the traditional three outs, and as Chapman alluded to with prior conversations with his manager. So in that Game 5 scenario, when clinging to your last hope, you go with your last hope. Still, I was nervous.
Omg Chapman coming in scares me— William Chase (@WillChase_) October 31, 2016
In reiterating how important Game 5 really was, aside from the obvious of winning that game to prolong the series another day, Maddon’s never-say-die bunch, which had fought off adversity head-on leading up to that game, looked to further distance themselves from the franchises’ losing stigma, with the new and short-lived dose of winning culture that was sweeping over Chicago.
Everything up to this point out the window.
“It’s something you can’t normally do during the season without beating somebody too badly. But I talked to Chappy before the game. He was aware of being ready in the seventh inning. So we had that all in play,” said Maddon regarding Chapman via Associated Press/ESPN.com.
The eight-out save by Chapman, the first eight-out save of his career, his first seventh inning appearance since 2012, and the first such postseason save of at least eight outs when Madison Bumgarner closed out the 2014 World Series, was another signifier that this team really could overcome any adversity.
42 pitches. 15 pitches of at least 100-mph. A season high coming in of 36 pitches, and a career high of 44 set a year ago. Same ole Chapman.
Over the final 2.2 innings, he allowed just one hit, striking out four. As deadly as the Indians bats had proven to be, he was too much for the likes of Jose Ramirez, who hit .310 for the World Series, Chicago-native, and Cubs fan growing up, Jason Kipnis who went to the same high school as Steve Bartman, and had delivered a crushing home run blow in Game 4, and Francisco Lindor who hit .296 for the series.
There was the innocent enough moment when Rajai Davis, whom Chapman fell behind 3-0 only to work to a full count, hit a grounder that nearly got beyond the diving grasp of first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who instead made the great stop and had the sure out at first. If Chapman had been covering the base. Caught watching a second too long, he had no shot by the time he moved over.
At that time they were still leading, and still had to win two more games just to get to a decisive seventh game. But how many times had the story of potential glory instead turned into a horror story before our very eyes? The 2003 Cubs went from 5-outs away to season over. Nevermind that they still had a Game 7 to play.
That could have been the case when Kipnis, looking to deliver as damaging a hit as he ever has, came to the plate, representing the Indians go-ahead run.
Davis stealing second meant a hit tied it. But Kipnis later popped out in the at-bat.
Leading the league in 2016 with steals of third base, Davis did just that. It’s important to note as it was now on catcher Wilson Contreras to keep the ball in front of him, as any potential passed ball scored Davis.
Speed versus running on anything that could get away from Contreras.
Strike 3 on Lindor, end of inning. Three outs to come and the rest is history. Even when that one fleeting moment when he doesn’t cover first looms large, Chapman comes up larger.
The unpredictability of the playoffs, and particularly for the Cubs and Chapman, went hand in hand. Though favorites much of the year, and Chapman being the man acquired for such postseason moments and potential glory, everything came down to surviving a pivotal Game 5, where the once favorites were suddenly on the brink of elimination down three games to one.
What have you done for me lately? is a type of question many in sports live by, quick to speculating about job security for coaches, or remembering the last bad moment in a game, as opposed to all the good build-up prior.
So when people think back on the Cubs, they are going to undoubtedly point to the epic drawn-out scene that was Game 7 — leads, blown leads, role reversals and rain-delays accounted for, even pointing to a gassed Chapman trying to work magic one more time at the most crucial time, a multiple-inning save, instead giving up a game-tying home run, and, at least for a second, giving fans that life-flashing-before-your-eyes sensation: 108 years speeding up before them, thinking the worst again. And then there’s the Cubs offensive onslaught that was Game 6.
None of that happens without the heroics of Chapman in Game 5. That’s what I am going to take away. For the goodness of greatness that is Kris Bryant, Joe Maddon, 17.5 game division title, home-field advantage and everything else, the season, at the first most crucial time in 2016, stakes raised, came down to Chapman in the World Series.
Instead of focusing on the mistakes in Chapman’s checkered history, and thinking of his part as a mere footnote, or even the Davis home run off Chapman in Game 7, I look to Game 5, and Chapman’s performance, as a major footnote that ultimately kept a storybook season alive.
While the Cubs maybe win without Chapman, or scatter eight outs among the rest of the bullpen to ensure that series moves back to Northeast Ohio, the effort that Chapman put forth is as crucial to the Cubs season as any other.
And that’s why when I think back on the 2016 Chicago Cubs, I’m going to remember Aroldis Chapman’s career, and franchise-defining pitching performance, that may have single-handedly sent the jolt of life from Cleveland into Chicago’s favor.
And That’s All She Wrote?
Now a free agent, and looking to cash in for the first time fresh off his World Series championship, Aroldis Chapman has likely played his final game as a Cub. The Cubs are almost assuredly pursing cheaper alternatives in the 2016 offseason, even linked to the likes of former All-Star closer Greg Holland, who missed the entire 2016 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.
I believe it is in the Cubs best interest to let Chapman walk, as he is said to be seeking a $100 million contract, though I can’t blame him for seeking top-dollar. That’s the luxury of a free agent who has put in the time and reaped the benefits. From the teams’ perspective, there is no sense in overpaying for a closer when they don’t need to, and especially when they can allocate that money elsewhere.
Jake Arrieta and John Lackey enter the final years of their contracts as the Cubs look for ways to keep the rotation up-to-par for today and tomorrow.
No matter what happens from this day forward, even if the prospects the Cubs sent to New York turn out to be all-star caliber, the ballsy decision to take the leap and acquire the six-foot-four left-hander is a trade not only the Cubs won, but one that should go down as one of the best in Cubs history.
Particularly because of the Game 5 that Chap turned in, and into the culmination of a 2016 World Series title. While Game 7 gets the glamour, and even though Chapman’s performance could have been his undoing, before that, we had to survive and Chapman defied Cubs ghosts of the past.