Leading 5-1 and with a firm vice-grip squeeze on St. Louis' faint pulse, the Reds really didn't have much need for a secret weapon by that point. But in their 20th consecutive day atop the NL Central and games now dropping from the schedule like autumn leaves, the Reds clearly sense the kill.
"The game dictated it," Reds manager Dusty Baker said of summoning Aroldis Chapman to help snuff out the Cardinals 6-1, running their lead back to eight games while snapping a five-game losing streak to Tony La Russa's club in 2010.
Chapman's first pitch, a heater to overmatched St. Louis leadoff man Aaron Miles, hit 101 and elicited an audible gasp from the sellout crowd of 44,597 still clinging to the last strands of summer around here.
|Aroldis Chapman is quickly becoming one of baseball's most exciting players. (AP)|
But closing in on what would be their first division title since 1995, buzz is not exactly a top priority.
"He's fit in. He's one of the boys," Baker said. "The sooner he feels comfortable and we're comfortable with him, the more we can go about our business.
"It's not about the buzz. It's about winning games, and getting one step closer."
Chapman's last pitch, another heater to Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols, was clocked at 99 in the split-second before Pujols bounced into a harmless, inning-ending double play. That erased Chapman's only mistake in three appearances, the one-out, four-pitch walk he issued to Jon Jay to prove that, well, yes, he really is human.
In three one-inning appearances since being recalled from Triple-A Louisville on Monday, Chapman, 22, now has faced the minimum of nine batters. He's yet to allow a hit. He's fanned three, and he's walked one.
After his fastball was clocked at a crazy 105 mph during his final appearance in Louisville, he hit 103 during the Miles at-bat Saturday.
Of the 15 pitches he threw against the Cardinals, 10 were 100 mph or higher. Three were 99.
As if the Reds weren't enjoying life in first place as it was, adding a weapon like this for September has them more giddy than a roomful of school kids with extra recess.
We've seen what it's like trying to hit him.
What's it like playing behind him?
"Every time he throws a pitch, I've gotta look at the miles-per-hour," Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips raved. "You haveto look at it.
"The more he's on the field, the more you're saying, 'Thank you, Walt, for getting this guy in Cincinnati.'
"That's what I'm saying out there. 'Thank you, Walt, for getting this guy in Cincinnati.'"
Jocketty lured him with a six-year, $30.25 million contract over the winter after Chapman defected from the Cuban national team a year ago July when it was in Holland.
At the time of his defection, he said the other day, he had never heard of Albert Pujols. He was more concerned with details such as establishing his residency in Europe. You know, big-picture details. Having left behind his entire family, including a baby girl, he didn't have much choice but to move full-steam ahead.
Chapman was a first baseman as a kid in Cuba, after he finished boxing. While those skills might have come in handy three weeks ago when the Reds and Cardinals engaged in their infamous rhubarb (alas, he was still in the bush leagues), that was another lifetime ago. He smoothly transitioned from first base to pitcher in Cuba when his city team came up empty of pitchers one day.
At 6-4 and with a rangy frame, Chapman was pitching for the Cuban Pan American team by 2007. He attempted to defect from Cuba in 2008 but was arrested. In December, '08, he fired a pitch clocked at 102, a record for the fastest pitch in Cuban history.
By this spring, he was Cincinnati's. And, boy. In Arizona in March, Art Stewart, the legendary scout from Kansas City, said he hadn't seen a young left-hander with as much zip since Herb Score.
"As a kid, I never saw it, but you always heard about Bullet Bob Feller," the 61-year-old Reds manager said. "He was the first guy I heard of who could throw 100. And back in those days ... radar guns are more sophisticated today.
"A 100 is a 100. I just want 100 in the strike zone."
That's why Chapman didn't break camp with the Reds. Impressive as he was this spring, he was a little wild and a little raw.
But the Reds could see into the future -- at least, into the near future in 2010. And that's why, midway through the season, they moved him from Triple-A Louisville's rotation into the bullpen. Looking to monitor his workload, they envisioned a David Price-circa-2008 role for him.
The Rays that year called Price up from the minors late and used him in their bullpen before he would later become a mainstay in their rotation. He was one of the weapons that helped them to their first-ever World Series appearance.
Though they could see him coming all summer, what the Reds have now, plain and simple, is a once-in-a-generation gift.
"It's beautiful," Phillips said. "Chapman brings us energy coming into the game. He keeps us on our feet. You wonder how hard he's going to throw. That's exciting.
"You've got to have excitement in the game of baseball because a lot of people think it's boring. When someone throws 100 every time he pitches, I think that's very exciting.
"I think he's the most exciting player in baseball right now."
Nominations are certainly open in the wake of Stephen Strasburg's season-ending elbow injury.
"This guy, for one inning, or for however many inning he pitches, he's the most exciting player in baseball right now," Phillips gushed.
From his debut in Cincinnati on Tuesday against Milwaukee to his showdown with Pujols to help strike another blow to the dying Cardinals on Sunday, Chapman very well may be.
"I'm just make my pitches," Chapman said through an interpreter regarding his first meeting with Pujols. "I threw what I had to throw. He swung at a pitch and I got a ground ball. I don't think it was easy. I don't think it was hard.
"I just think it was one at-bat."
Prodded a bit, Chapman allowed that, "up until now, he's the best hitter I've ever faced in my career, because he has a name."
Quick out of the gates as he's been, Chapman is working on a name, too. He's already been referred to as the Cuban Rocket Launcher and, predictably, as the Cuban Missile.
Baker envisions him this month as a spot-reliever, so to speak, not working as a closer -- that's Francisco Cordero's domain -- but spotting into crucial situations, be they in the middle innings or late innings.
After Sunday, it's probably nothing the Cardinals will need to worry about until next summer.
As for those who may face the Reds in October ... gentlemen, start your swings now.