The Cincinnati Reds have dealt with their fair share of injuries here in the early stages of the 2014 season, with none more memorable than the liner that closer Aroldis Chapman took off his forehead during spring training.
The injury occurred March 19, when Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez smoked a liner back up the middle that caught Chapman above his left eye. He wound up needing surgery and a plate inserted above his eye to stabilize the fracture.
His recovery has been a process, but he's now slated to make his return to Cincinnati at some point during the team's upcoming six-game homestand that kicks off on Friday, and the 15-18 Reds are hoping that can provide a spark.
Chapman has been one of the game's most dominant closers since taking over the full-time job prior to the 2012 season, going 76-of-86 on save chances with a 2.00 ERA and a video game-like 234 strikeouts in 134.1 innings of work.
In his absence, the Reds bullpen has been a mess, as they currently rank 25th in the MLB with a 4.40 ERA, and they have converted just six of 11 save chances.
The ninth innings has been stabilized since Jonathan Broxton returned after missing the first week of the season, and Sam LeCure has been great in a setup role, but the negative has far outweighed the positive so far.
Outside of those two, though, the pen has been shaky at best and a far less effective group than the one that ranked fourth in the NL with a 3.29 ERA last season.
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One key member missing from last year's impressive group is right-hander Alfredo Simon, who was forced into the rotation with Mat Latos sidelined.
He has done a fantastic job stepping in as a starter, going 4-1 with a 1.99 ERA in six starts. He is no doubt missed in the bullpen, though, after making 63 appearances and posting a 2.87 ERA last year.
With Tony Cingrani recently landing on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis and Latos still on the mend, Simon won't be joining his buddies in the pen anytime soon, so if a boost is going to come from anywhere it's going to be from the return of Chapman.
He returned to action for Single-A Dayton on May 1, throwing a scoreless inning to start the game, and his fastball was in midseason form as he touched 101 mph twice.
"When I say 'normal,' I mean I felt like I have always been, the way I felt before the accident," Chapman told Andy Call of MLB.com. "There is no fear, no hesitation with me."
He threw another scoreless inning with Dayton before moving to Triple-A Louisville for his next stop on the comeback trail.
Things did not go nearly as swimmingly on Tuesday in his first appearance for Louisville, as he allowed four hits and five earned runs in 0.2 innings of work before being lifted after having thrown 33 pitches, 21 for strikes. He remained positive, though, and is still eyeing a weekend return.
"He said, he's happy to be out there throwing again," Chapman's interpreter told Michael Grant of The Courier-Journal. "His fastball was good. He didn't have the control tonight, but he still felt good physically. He feels like he's ready to go. He's got to throw a couple more innings, but the decision is up to the Reds."
He pitched back-to-back games for the first time with an appearance on Wednesday, but he was hit hard again, allowing three hits and three runs in 0.1 innings of work. The numbers certainly aren't where you want them to be, but according to Jon Morosi of Fox Sports, he is still in line to be activated as early as this weekend.
Seeing him make such a quick comeback from such a gruesome injury is no doubt a source of inspiration for his teammates. His return could be exactly what the Reds need to spark their team emotionally and vastly improve their struggling bullpen statistically.
As a fan of the game, here's hoping the Cuban Missile shows no ill effects of this injury moving forward and goes right back to blowing away big league hitters at a ridiculous rate.
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