Sandwiched in between the eighth inning’s dream-killing Rajai Davis home run and the rain-delayed tenth inning that cleansed Cubs fans of over a century of frustration, the ninth inning of World Series Game Seven is often overlooked.
Or, when it is reflected upon, the fact that Aroldis Chapman was able to muster three outs in the bottom of that inning is either seen as a simple marvel or an act of providence. A Cleveland walk-off and ensuing celebration felt imminent, especially given that the obviously gassed Chapman had to fend off the top of Terry Francona’s batting order: Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, and Francisco Lindor.
At that point in the game, the Cubs chances of walking away with victory were as tenuous as they had been all night. Cleveland’s win probability coming into the bottom of the ninth was roughly 63 percent; perhaps paltry when compared to San Francisco’s WPA going into the ninth in Game Four of the NLDS, but the highest it had been for the entire game—higher even than after the Davis home run in the previous inning (53.4 percent).
Given Joe Maddon’s use of only Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester to get to the eighth inning and Chapman’s heavy workload in Game Five and Game Six, few—if any—would have begrudged him the choice to hand the ball to someone else from the bullpen to stave off Cleveland’s offense and get three outs.
But he didn’t. Maddon, instead, handed the ball back to Chapman after watching a healthy lead evaporate in the previous inning.
Why he did this is better left for another writer, on another day, but that he did can at least now be judged through the lens of success.
How Chapman accomplished these three outs is interesting, and the answer is probably blandly simple: pitch selection.
In the eighth, Chapman attempted to rely almost exclusively on his trademark four-seamer. He threw his fastball 22 times that inning. In fact, during the two at-bats that did the most damage, he chucked nothing but heaters. When one throws a fastball that averaged 101 mph during the season, that’s understandable. But in that inning, he didn’t have the speed that had been counted on previously.
Against Brandon Guyer, who doubled in Cleveland’s fourth run, and Rajai Davis, who homered in the game-tying fifth and sixth runs, Chapman threw fourteen straight fastballs and only once crested the century mark. Throw professional hitters the same pitch over and over again—at any speed—and they’ll find a way to get around on it.
By comparison, Chapman’s use of the fastball in the ninth inning was completely sparse. He used it only four times in fourteen pitches, and resorted instead to using his slider. Not a bad decision, given that his slider coaxed a better whiff rate (about 21.5 percent) in 2016 than his fastball (just under 18 percent).
These numbers are admittedly a bit deceptive given that Chapman threw the fastball nearly ten times as much as the slider, but in the ninth inning of Game Seven, he flipped that trend. After piping in fastball after ineffectual fastball in the eighth, he duped Santana, Kipnis, and Lindor with his breaking pitch.
Santana saw the pitch three times to begin his at-bat, and watched it go by all three times. Chapman followed those pitches with a pair of fastballs, one outside of the zone and one in, and Santana simply stared at both of those as well. Evidently, he was banking on a free pass, and it wasn’t until the count was full that he felt compelled to swing. The final offering of the plate appearance was again a slider, and though he made contact, the best Santana could do was punch it to left-center for the first out.
Kipnis must still wonder at what he saw from Chapman in that inning. Even if he’d been scrutinizing Santana’s appearance at the plate closely, Kipnis would not likely have anticipated six straight sliders. But they worked. And despite nearly ending the night and the series with a crushing blast that mercifully went foul, he was not ready for Chapman’s seventh pitch of the at-bat.
Though he could not count on the four-seamer to cruise in at over triple digits, Chapman must have known that seeing even a 97 mph heater would look a lot faster after half a dozen sliders. His last pitch to Kipnis did the job.
One out to go, and Chapman’s carefully chosen first pitch to Lindor salvaged his outing. Cleveland’s shortstop must have been paying attention to Santana and Kipnis at the plate and must, too, have wondered and even possibly expected that he’d see a handful of sliders in his at-bat as well.
Instead, Chapman heaved a fastball first, and Lindor jumped on it. Cruising in at a leisurely 98 mph, it must have looked a tasty morsel to play the hero, but Lindor’s drive to right field provided only fodder for Chicago’s famed defense to step in. Jason Heyward caught the ball and muffled Lindor’s chance to build his legend.
A seventeen-minute rain delay and two-run top of the tenth later, and the World Series parade was on Lake Michigan instead of Lake Erie.
Lead photo courtesy of David Richard—USA Today Sports