SAN DIEGO – Aroldis Chapman(notes) was summoned from the bullpen one batter too late to make a difference in the game. No matter. The 22-year-old Cincinnati Reds left-hander made do by making history Friday night, throwing the fastest pitch recorded in a major league game, a 105-mph fastball.
The blazing pitch pushed a white-hot pennant race to the back burner. Yes, the San Diego Padres won the game 4-3 to pull ahead of the Atlanta Braves in the National League wild-card race. Sure, the San Francisco Giants all but buried the Colorado Rockies thanks to a dominant performance by Tim Lincecum(notes).
But the lingering memory was of a now-you-see-it, did-I-actually-see-it fastball to Tony Gwynn(notes) in the eighth inning. The pitch was not a fluke: Chapman threw 25 pitches in his 1 1/3 innings of relief, and every one was at least 100 mph. He didn’t throw a slider. He didn’t throw a changeup. Why would he?
From Walter Johnson to Bob Feller to Steve Dalkowski to J.R. Richard to Nolan Ryan to Stephen Strasburg, blistering velocity is etched forever in baseball lore. Rush Chapman to the head of the list. Has anybody in the history of the game had a comparable 25-pitch sequence?
“I didn’t see it until the ball was behind me,” Gwynn said. “I was trying not to look at the radar reading because I’d be intimidated. I saw how hard he was throwing and just tried to be slow and work my hands.”
The 105-mph pitch was inside for a ball and evened the count at 2-2. Gwynn had fouled off the previous two pitches and fouled off the next before striking out. He ought to be pleased with his effort, forcing Chapman to make seven pitches, the slowest of which was 102 mph.
Gwynn’s father, Tony, a Hall-of-Famer and one of baseball greatest hitters, never saw a pitch as fast as the one Chapman threw. Maybe nobody else has, either. Since radar guns were introduced in the 1980s, the fastest pitch recorded was 104.8 mph by Joel Zumaya(notes) of the Detroit Tigers in a playoff game Oct. 10, 2006. Chapman, who defected from the Cuban national team in 2009, was clocked at 104 on Sept. 1 in his second major league appearance and also hit 105 mph with a pitch for Triple-A Louisville earlier this season.
Chapman, speaking through an interpreter with bags of ice strapped across his arm, credited his stepped-up velocity Friday to the fact that he’d pitched only once in the last week. He didn’t allow an earned run in his first eight relief appearances after being promoted Aug. 31, but the Astros nicked him for two runs a week ago. He pitched a scoreless inning on Monday against the Brewers, then had three more days off.
“My arm had been a little sore and the rest helped,” he said. “I felt as good as I did a couple weeks ago. Not the best I’ve ever felt, but I felt good.”
Reds manager Dusty Baker appreciated the moment, but the loss grated on him. Chapman was warming up in the bullpen when Miguel Tejada(notes) delivered a bases-loaded, two-out single in the seventh against Nick Masset(notes) that drove in the Padres’ third and fourth runs. Chapman came in and struck out Adrian Gonzalez(notes) on three fastballs that registered 101, 102 and 103 mph.
Baker had been reluctant to summon Chapman to face Tejada with the bases loaded and the Reds holding a one-run lead, envisioning a wild pitch or a walk.
“A guy throwing that hard, looking back you can say I should have brought him in earlier, but he can’t pitch against everybody all the time,” Baker said.
Asked if that was the hardest he has seen Chapman throw by a small degree, Baker replied, “By a big degree.”
Padres officials said the stadium radar gun is not known for inordinately high readings, unlike the Fox TV gun that recorded Zumaya at 104.8. Chapman had three other pitches Friday clocked at 104 mph.
This wasn’t the first time Chapman had pitched at Petco Park. He started for the Cuban team in the World Baseball Classic in the spring of 2009 and was knocked out of the game in the third inning against Japan and took the loss. His fastest pitch was 101 mph.
“I’ve grown up and improved so much since then,” he said. “I remember that night and losing my composure a little. I couldn’t find the strike zone. That seems like a long time ago.”
After defecting during a tournament in the Netherlands in July 2009, Chapman signed a six-year, $30.25 million deal with the Reds in January. It was widely predicted that he would sign a much more lucrative deal with a deep-pocket team such as the Yankees or Red Sox, but some teams backed off because of concerns about his maturity.
“We’ve got to make bold moves sometimes,” Reds GM Walt Jocketty said at the time.
Now the signing looks genius. And maybe by the time the playoffs begin, Baker will go to Chapman earlier, even with the bases loaded.
“When a guy is throwing that hard, you feel sort of helpless,” Gwynn said. “We’re just glad we had enough runs to win before he came in the game.”