CHICAGO -- The urgency that accompanies October baseball has led to a revolution of sorts this October when it comes to how -- and when -- managers are willing to deploy their closers. The conventional strategy of holding back a designated reliever for the ninth inning has been, with growing regularity, replaced by a push to utilize the best reliever, regardless of title, in the highest-leverage situations.
That's what led Cubs manager Joe Maddon to summon Aroldis Chapman one inning earlier than usual and in the most precarious of spots in Game 1 of Saturday's National League Championship Series (Game 2 is Sunday at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT on FS1). The Dodgers had loaded the bases with no outs in the eighth, threatening the Cubs' 3-1 lead. Chapman entered, promptly struck out two, but then served up a game-tying single to Adrián González.
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Though the Cubs would storm back in the bottom half of the inning en route to an 8-4 win, Chapman saw his pitching line marred by his second blown save of this postseason. And this was much like the first, a Game 3 NL Division Series appearance in which Chapman had been brought in with runners on base and the Cubs six outs away from victory. The Giants scored three times off of him.
For a pitcher who has publicly stated his preference for entering at the start of an inning, rather than amid a mess, might Maddon reconsider whether Chapman is best suited for such unconventional spots as the team plays deeper into the postseason?
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"No, no, no," Maddon insisted afterward. "Because it didn't work out doesn't mean it was wrong."
Of the 59 appearances Chapman made during the regular season, eight of them involved entering mid-inning. In those eight games, Chapman had a clean outing six times. The other two became blown saves, of which Chapman had just three total all year. He allowed six of 12 inherited runners to score.
"It is a little bit difficult," Chapman, speaking through a team translator, said after Game 1. "Yes, it is very different. It's not the same as coming in the beginning of an inning with nobody on and nobody out. It's very different than that. [On Saturday], I don't want that runner on third to get in. To me, that's my biggest concern -- making sure that runner on third doesn't get in. But it is a difficult situation."
Yet, while the Giants pounced on Chapman immediately after his eighth-inning entrance in the NLDS, the Dodgers almost whiffed.
Chapman struck out Corey Seager and Yasiel Puig to register two outs without allowing a baserunner to budge. Gonzalez then worked a 1-1 count before slapping a single up the middle on a pitch that hit 101.6 mph, according to Statcast™. Chapman rebounded to retire Yasmani Grandal to strand the potential go-ahead run on third.
The absence of any element of surprise may not have helped Chapman's chances at tiptoeing around on Saturday. He threw 17 pitches, every one of them a fastball.
"He's got the best fastball in the game, but if you just throw fastballs, they're going to get hit," Gonzalez said. "He knows he's got to mix it up."
That's particularly true against this opponent, as the Dodgers led the Majors with a .291 batting average and .488 slugging percentage on pitches clocked at 95 mph or faster this season.
It's no secret that Chapman's triple-digit fastball is his greatest asset, but he does typically mix in his slider to keep hitters guessing. According to Fangraphs.com, Chapman threw an offspeed pitch 19 percent of the time during the regular season.
In Saturday's spot, though, Chapman wanted a one-pitch approach. And it was one, despite the result, that he didn't regret.
"I know my fastball is my best pitch," Chapman said. "I know the catcher does, too. If you're going to get me, if you're going to hit me, you're going to hit me with my best pitch. I don't want someone to score on me knowing it wasn't with the pitch that I wanted. The fastball is my pitch, and that's what you're going to get me on."