By Josh Cook
At least Aroldis Chapman left Louisville with something to remember him by...a 105-mile-per-hour fastball.
The Louisville Bats' left-handed pitching phenom hit that triple-digit number on the radar gun at Louisville Slugger Field last Friday night in the ninth inning against the Columbus Clippers. As it turns out that will likely be the last time we see Chapman in a Bats' uniform. He is expected to be called up by the parent Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday.
Chapman leaves Louisville after compiling a 9-6 record, eight saves and a 3.57 earned-run average - as well as 125 strikeouts in 95 2/3 innings - in 39 appearances with the Bats.
"He has progressed enough, he is one of the guys I have that can go to the big leagues and be ready to help the Reds win," Louisville manager Rick Sweet said last Friday night.
After being signed to a huge contract (a reported $30-plus million over six years) in the offseason many expected Chapman, a Cuban defector, to move right into the Reds' starting rotation this season. But it didn't work out that way.
Chapman didn't even start the season with the Reds, he began it in Louisville as Cincinnati brass decided it was better for the southpaw to get some seasoning first.
"He's special, there's no doubt about that, but he's still got a lot to learn," Sweet said. "We had to teach him how to hit, how to bunt, how to run the bases, things you take for granted. So there was more than just pitching we had to teach."
But he had some lessons to learn on the mound too during his stay in Triple-A.
After a few sensational starts - he went 1-1 with a 1.29 ERA his first four times on the mound - Chapman began to struggle with his control. Although he went 4-1 in May his ERA was a not-so-low 5.47 and opponents hit .289 against him. He struggled even more in June, walking 16 in 24 2/3 innings, prompting a move to the bullpen.
The transition wasn't easy at first, but Chapman survived it. Then he thrived. He went 2-0 with one save and a 1.50 ERA in 11 appearances in July, around the same time that the Bats' big turnaround occurred. In August he was awesome, going 2-0 with seven saves and a 1.35 ERA in 12 appearances. Over 13 1/3 innings he allowed only two earned runs and four hits while walking four and striking out 24.
"I really like to be a starter, that's what I like to do. But now I've started to be a closer I kind of like it too," Chapman said last Friday night through interpreter, and Bats trainer, Tomas Vera. "All my life as a pitcher I have been a starter, now that I am a reliever, a closer, I feel really happy. I like it."
Louisville Bats fans had to like what they witnessed Chapman do last Friday night. He entered the ninth inning of a critical game against Columbus, the team Louisville is battling with for the International League West title, with the score tied at 1. And all he did was strike out the side - the Clippers' Nos. 4, 5 and 6 hitters - before the Bats won it in the bottom of the inning.
His 14-pitch outing was remarkable. He reached at least 100 mph on nine of his pitches and topped out at 105.
"That's the first time I've done that," Chapman said. "I feel really happy to do that. Really, really happy."
But for all his recent success, as well as that of his team, Chapman hinted then that he wanted more.
"The only dream I have right now is to play in the big leagues," he said. "I feel like I'm ready to play in the big leagues and that's the only goal I have right now. I feel like I'm ready to."
And apparently the Reds, who need all the bullpen help they can get as they battle for a berth in the postseason and beyond, agree too. Chapman is expected to be called up Tuesday in time for the Reds' 7:10 p.m. game against the Brewers at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati.
But despite his promotion don't think that Chapman will forget the city where his American professional baseball career began.
"I've learned a lot being here," he said. "I'm really proud and happy of all the things they've been teaching me and all the things I've learned through this year here with this team."
Photo courtesy Louisville Bats