was his usual electrifying self Sunday, striking out the side. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Nearly two months after taking a line drive off the face, Aroldis Chapman returned to the mound for the Reds, making his regular season debut in the ninth inning of Cincinnati's game against Colorado. Given a three-run lead, Chapman picked up his first save of 2014 with a flourish, striking out the side to preserve the 4-1 win and give the Reds a series victory over the Rockies.
Chapman certainly wasn't given the easiest of assignments for his maiden appearance of the year: Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and Nolan Arenado. Although Chapman got ahead of Tulowitzki 0-2, the league's hottest hitter battled back to draw four straight balls and a leadoff walk. From there, though, Chapman reared back and dispatched of Gonzalez on three straight pitches, getting him swinging on a 102 mph fastball for strike three. Arenado gave Chapman a bit more of a battle, forcing seven pitches, but fell on a slider for the Cuban's second strikeout of the inning.
The final batter, Justin Morneau saw nothing but fastballs, but couldn't get around on Chapman's heat. The fifth pitch of the at-bat and 21st of Chapman's day was a 101 mph heater that he simply blew by Morneau to finish the inning and the game.
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Chapman stuck primarily to his fastball on the day, throwing 17 of them. Despite a shaky series of rehab outings — eight runs allowed on seven hits, three walks and five strikeouts in three innings — Chapman showed virtually no rust when it counted. He averaged a blistering 101.6 mph with his fastball against Colorado, peaking at 103 mph on his third pitch to Arenado. Chapman got four swings-and-misses on those 17 fastballs, tossing in four sliders for good measure, to strike out the side for the 13th time in 70 games since the start of the 2013 season.
Chapman's return is a welcome addition to a Reds bullpen that has struggled in his absence. Fill-in closer Jonathan Broxton has done well in Chapman's stead, with just one blown save in six opportunities — that coming against Colorado on Friday night. Likewise, right-handed setup man Sam LeCure has emerged as a valuable late-innings reliever for Bryan Price, with one run allowed in 15 1/3 innings. But both Broxton and LeCure have had trouble keeping runners off the bases — Broxton has walked five in nine innings, LeCure 12 — and they've had little to no help behind them. J.J. Hoover has been miserable, with 13 earned runs on 17 hits and 10 walks in 11 2/3 innings, as well as three blown saves and four losses. Sean Marshall started the season on the disabled list and has thrown only 4 2/3 innings with three runs allowed. All told, Cincinnati's bullpen has a 4.70 ERA in 82 1/3 innings, the fifth-worst mark in baseball, and the unit's 1.58 WHIP is better only than Houston.
But even if Chapman can't save the bullpen by himself — Cincinnati needs far more from Hoover and Marshall — as he showed on Sunday, he can do a whole lot on his own. And his return comes at a good time for the Reds, who have seen more than their fair share of injuries so far and, at 17-19 on the year, need the kind of jolt that Chapman can provide.