How a Dominant Aroldis Chapman Could Shake Up the NL Race

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How a Dominant Aroldis Chapman Could Shake Up the NL Race
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Apparently, Aroldis Chapman, possessor of perhaps the biggest fastball in Major League Baseball, does everything quickly—including return from a career- and life-threatening injury.

Just shy of two months after getting hit directly in the face by a screaming line drive during spring training on March 19, the Cincinnati Reds closer capped off an impressive series win at home over the red-hot Colorado Rockies by showcasing his usual 100-mph heat while striking out the side in Carlos Gonzalez, Nolan Arenado and Justin Morneau, three very hot hitters in the middle of the best offense in baseball.

"I am really happy to get out there for the first time," Chapman said through a translator via the Associated Press"They are a good team, but I was mentally prepared to face them. Facing those type of hitters make you feel better than if you just break the ice."

The win put the Reds' record at 17-19 coming out of the weekend, which has them six games behind the surprising Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central but only a game back of the St. Louis Cardinals for second place. Despite the slow start, due in part to injuries to key cogs like Chapman, Cincinnati is right in the thick of things in the Senior Circuit.

The club has managed to hang in even while Chapman was joined on the disabled list by Mat Latos, one of the team's best pitchers, and Jay Bruce, one of its best hitters. The Reds also have been without promising youngsters like lefty Tony Cingrani (3.34 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 8.9 K/9) and catcher Devin Mesoraco (.468 BA, 3 HR, 13 RBI in 13 games) recently.

Al Behrman/Associated Press
Due to knee surgery, Jay Bruce's big bat—which has smacked at least 30 homers the past three years—will be out for a few more weeks.

But the return of Chapman, 26, provides a spark, and some hope that maybe things are turning around in the the Queen City. Especially after the flame-throwing left-hander had looked mighty shaky only a few days ago during his rehab stint at Triple-A, where Chapman surrendered eight runs on seven hits and two walks in only one inning across two appearances.

And yet Chapman now has made it back—miraculously—only eight weeks after what was one of the more gruesome, life-threatening injuries ever suffered on a baseball diamond.

Immediately following his appearance, Chapman said he was simply trying to control his emotions the first time out and was happy with the result.

The Reds should be happy, too. They needed this, and that can be heard in the way teammates Homer Bailey and Billy Hamilton spoke about Chapman's triumphant return after he closed out the victory.

Bailey, who was the winning pitcher Sunday, recognized how important it is to get Chapman, among other Reds stars, back healthy.

"To see [Chapman] coming out of the bullpen," Bailey said, "it's a feeling like the team is starting to come together...To get those big pieces back is going to be big for this club."

Even Hamilton, a rookie who hasn't been with the club that long, noticed how much Chapman's presence and performance uplifted both the team and the fans.

"Everybody had smiles on their faces," said the speedy center fielder, who went 2-for-3 with a triple and his 12th stolen base. "The crowd was just crazy."

No doubt, getting Chapman back is a huge lift. This is a two-time All-Star who owns a career ERA of 2.39, 14.7 strikeouts per nine and an 89.5 percent conversion rate on his 87 save opportunities since taking over the ninth inning for Cincinnati in 2012. That's the kind of elite talent that can make an impact for a team pursuing its third straight postseason appearance and fourth in the past five years.

Chapman couldn't have arrived at a better time, either, considering the Reds' bullpen, which has been one of the better relief corps in MLB the past few seasons, has struggled so much at the outset of 2014. The club's 4.70 bullpen ERA is fifth-worst in the sport.

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Still, Chapman is but one pitcher, and a one-inning-at-a-time pitcher at that. While his story is one of triumph over disaster and he'll surely help stabilize the Reds relievers, his ability to impact the NL Central race remains limited.

Getting their star closer back is inspiring, but where that will really push the Reds is if it inspires all the other injured players—from Bruce and Latos to Cingrani and Mesoraco—to make it back and contribute from the get-go.

As great as Chapman is, he's not a savior. But if he can be the start of a steady stream of Reds players making triumphant returns to the field over the coming weeks, a club that has held up against quite a bit of hardship so far once again will be in position to make a run at October.

After all, it's not how you start but how you finish—just like Chapman showed by finishing off a much-needed Reds win Sunday.

 

Statistics come from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, except where otherwise noted.

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11

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