HOUSTON – There’s a facial expression some people in the game make after a failure.
It’s a masking device, often involuntary, and it’s designed to hide the surprise and pain that comes with a devastating defeat in baseball.
It was the face of a stunned Aroldis Chapman as he watched José Altuve’s game-winning home run bounce off of the sign high above the left-center-field wall at Minute Maid Park in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 6 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday night, ending the Yankees' World Series hopes.
Frozen on the mound as Altuve circled the bases in delight and with Houston fans erupting around him, Chapman smiled in disbelief. Then, he returned to the visiting clubhouse where he sat in front of his locker in a towel for 10 minutes in a daze. Chapman only looked up when teammates came to pat him on the back after the Yankees’ 6-4 loss. And then, he put his head down again.
The smile was long gone. Reality had set in, and the season was over.
“At that moment when the ball went out, I couldn’t believe it,” Chapman said. “I couldn’t believe it went out at that time of the game. For that split-second, I just couldn’t believe it.”
Chapman entered with the game tied at 4 and struck out the first batter he faced, Astros catcher Martin Maldonado, on five pitches that included two fastballs, two sinkers and a slider. Three of the five pitches he threw to the next batter, right fielder Josh Reddick, were sliders, not his signature fastball. Although Chapman got the strikeout, it was a sign of things to come and consistent with the approach he has had all year.
Since 2016, Chapman has increased the use of his slider every season. He threw it 31.1 percent of the time in 2019, including 38.3 percent with two strikes. It’s also worth noting that during the last four years, the velocity of Chapman's fastball has dropped from an average of 101.1 mph to 98.3 this season. It’s still above average, but it’s just not what it once was, and hitters are ready for the heat. They also understand there’s a good chance the slider is coming when they step in the batter’s box.
Chapman’s first three pitches to Astros outfielder George Springer, the third hitter in the ninth, were all sliders, and the left-hander fell behind, 2-1. He tried to climb out of the hole with two fastballs, but he missed with both pitches, walking Springer to set the stage for Altuve.
Chapman's first two pitches to Altuve were fastballs out of the strike zone, so he went back to his slider two more times. The last one he threw hung in the air, and Altuve launched it for the walk-off homer.
“I fell behind in the count and wanted to get ahead with the slider, and I didn’t,” Chapman said. “It didn’t land in the spot where I wanted, and he took full advantage of that. That’s what I was trying to do in that at-bat.”
The Yanks did not consider walking Altuve to get to the next hitter, Jake Marisnick, but it’s fair to wonder what would have happened if they did. Marisnick, who is known primarily for his defense, struck out in his only previous career at-bat against Chapman, and he has only three at-bats this postseason.
“[It’s] certainly not a walk, an intentional walk, situation, but kind of pitching [Altuve] aggressively like you're ahead the whole time,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “And I think Chappy did, he just hung a breaking ball. That's obviously a pitch he's trying to not give in and probably get down and out of the zone, see if you get a chase or something, and he hung it.”
Chapman never thought about walking Altuve to get to Marisnick. After all, he has issued only three intentional walks during his 10-year career. An intentional pass is the furthest thing on Chapman's mind.
“For me, every time I go out there, it’s going to be a battle, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the best or worst hitter in the league, I’m always going to go out there and challenge that hitter,” Chapman said. “Throughout my career, I've faced everybody the same way with the mindset of attacking them and getting them out.”
Chapman pitched twice in the AL Division Series against the Twins, and he only pitched two innings in the ALCS before Saturday night’s stunner. He refused to make his usage, or lack thereof, an excuse for his performance in Game 6.
“I felt strong and fresh and ready to pitch,” Chapman said. “What happened on the field is what happened on the field. It had nothing to do with that.”
Where Chapman goes from here is to be determined. He can opt out of the final two years (for $17.2 million each season) of the $86 million contract he signed with the Yanks in 2016, and become a free agent. Chapman was too stunned to talk about his future Saturday night.
“We haven’t even finished [talking about the loss] and you are asking me about my contract,” a straight-faced Chapman. “That’s a topic for another time.”