Homer doesn't faze Chapman in first start
Reds hurler strikes out five, stifles Brewers after leadoff shot
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- With each outing this spring, it seems more difficult to imagine that the Reds' front office would conclude camp in nearly three weeks by telling Aroldis Chapman he's not the best person to take their rotation's fifth spot."We still have a ways to go before we have to make that determination," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. Baker was given another reason to be impressed on Wednesday vs. the Brewers. In his third outing, but first start of spring, Chapman pitched three innings and allowed one run and one hit with one walk and five strikeouts. Cincinnati lost the game, 5-2. Of the 45 pitches Chapman threw, 29 were strikes and he reached three-ball counts three times. After he reached 100 mph in each of his first two appearances, he topped out at 98 mph multiple times, according to the radar guns of a few scouts behind home plate. Most importantly, he was throwing strikes. "For the most part, I felt really good about the command of my pitches today," Chapman said, with Class A Dayton pitching coach Tony Fossas translating. "Some of them were a little bit away. I threw a lot more sliders and fastballs today. I felt good with it today. There were less changeups." Chapman also showed he was just as capable of paying for a bad pitch. His first batter of the game, Rickie Weeks, launched a 3-1 fastball well over the left-center-field fence for a home run. It was the first time anyone had taken Chapman deep during Spring Training. "I just made a mistake, a [3-1] pitch down the middle," Chapman said. "Of course he has life on his fastball, and I saw a slider and changeup from him and I don't think he was able to get the offspeed over for strikes a lot," Weeks said. "I don't really pay attention [to the hype]. He's a pitcher. He's going out and doing his job. The hype about him? The guy throws 100 mph, so what do you expect?" Weeks was the only batter that eluded Chapman when he also walked in the top of the third. The Milwaukee hitters otherwise had their hands full trying to get a handle on the hard-throwing 22-year-old Cuban lefty. Following Weeks' homer, Chapman retired eight in a row, including a stretch of five out of six with strikeouts. The first inning concluded with Ryan Braun called out on strikes by a 90-mph hard slider. Corey Hart fanned on a 97-mph fastball for the third out.
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In an impressive sequence in the third inning, Chapman threw four pitches to strike out George Kottaras that were clocked at 95, 96, 97 and 97 mph."It's very funky," Hart said. "Everything he threw was moving. Nothing was the same." Over three outings this spring, Chapman has given up one earned run and four hits with two walks and a team-leading 10 strikeouts. He is 1-0 with a 1.29 ERA. The Reds made a splash when they signed Chapman in January to a six-year, $30.25 million contract despite him largely being an unknown entity. He defected from Cuba in July and had no professional experience. To this point on the mound, Chapman has mostly backed up the bold investment. "He looked outstanding," Baker said. "The more I looked at him, he started to remind me of a guy I faced and a guy I played in Puerto Rico with -- [former Red Sox tall and skinny left-hander] Rogelio Moret. He had a nasty sinker today, a two-seamer, that we didn't even know he had. He's slowly but surely adding to his repertoire of pitches. He's feeling more comfortable and more confident." Chapman demonstrated less command with his fastball and slider in his previous outing vs. the Dodgers on Friday. But he has been nowhere nearly as wild and raw as scouting reports indicated before camp began. Part of the reason is because Chapman focused on improvements since signing and has learned quickly. "I am staying taller and finishing up my pitches better and not dropping my elbow," he said. "I was always opening up too much and I've made those corrections." Chapman is making a bid for the fifth spot in the Cincinnati rotation against several other candidates -- including Micah Owings, Travis Wood, Justin Lehr and Matt Maloney. One pitcher no longer in the race is Mike Lincoln, who was informed Wednesday morning that he would be headed back to his regular bullpen role. It wasn't a stunner since Lincoln had a 11.37 ERA in three starts. The only fifth-starter candidates having anywhere close to Chapman's success are two other prospects that had outside chances, at best, coming in -- Wood and 2009 first-round Draft pick Mike Leake. "We're starting to narrow it down," Baker said. "We're going back to have some meetings and try and determine who is who. It'll probably go down to the wire, even if we have to use Minor League games or 'B' games and things like that. As long as we get these guys their innings for endurance sake." Since the Reds tell their pitchers exactly when they'll be coming out of the bullpen, the club didn't view Chapman's first start as a different type of test from his previous relief appearances. What made this outing different was some hitters saw him a second time around, but Baker even downplayed that significance. "Initially, how to pitch them goes to the catcher," Baker said. "Where to pitch them goes to the catcher. How you get it there is up to him." So far, Chapman has done his part by mostly getting it there well. The decision of whether he's big league-ready falls on the Reds.
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.