LOS ANGELES – This was not the way it was supposed to be. Jhoulys Chacín was not expected to be the Milwaukee Brewers’ ace.
When general manager David Stearns signed the veteran right-hander to a two-year, $15.5 million free-agent contract four days before last Christmas, it barely warmed one burner in the Hot Stove League. Yes, Chacín was coming off a nice year with the San Diego Padres but was viewed more as a complementary piece to the Brewers’ staff.
Chase Anderson, tabbed as the opening day starter in spring camp by manager Craig Counsell, and Zach Davies were expected to be the leaders of the starting rotation, as they were for much of the 2017 season. Jimmy Nelson, who emerged with that pair to form a reliable triumvirate, hoped to return some time in the second half from major shoulder surgery.
You know what they say about the best-laid plans of men and pitching coaches. Anderson fought his mechanics throughout the season, couldn’t keep the ball in the yard (league-leading 30 homers) and was struggling so badly at the end of the season, he hasn’t made a postseason roster.
Davies began having trouble with his shoulder in the early going, that issue morphed into lower-back problems and before you knew it, he had missed more than half the season. Accordingly, he has joined Anderson on the sidelines.
Despite all of his hard work in a long, tedious rehab program, Nelson never made it back to the mound in a real game this season. He now has his sights set on 2019.
While those calamities played out, Chacín kept taking the ball. And taking the ball. Others would come and go in the rotation but he took the mound every five days and invariably got the job done. When the regular season was done, Chacín was the only starter, or “intial out-getter,” as Counsell calls them, to make every turn, 35 of them in all.
Chacín, 30, posted a 15-8 record and 3.50 ERA over 192 2/3 innings, third-most of his career. Remarkably, on a team that won 96 games in the regular season, he was the only “initial out-getter” to post at least 10 victories.
Counsell wisely lined up Chacín to be available for a game No. 163 if needed, and when the Brewers caught the Chicago Cubs for the division lead to force that winner-take-all game at Wrigley Field, he got the ball. To no one’s surprise, Chacín delivered again, allowing only one hit and one run in 5 2/3 innings in the 3-1 victory that sealed the NL Central crown.
Now, when they need him most, Chacín will take the mound Monday night at Dodger Stadium in Game 3 of the NL Championship Series against Los Angeles. The series is tied at 1, so Game 3 looms as a pivotal point for two teams hoping to advance to the World Series, which would be a repeat performance for the Dodgers but the first trip for the Brewers since 1982.
“This was my dream, to pitch in the playoffs, and I thought Milwaukee was the right place to do it,” said Chacín, who delivered five shutout innings on short rest in Game 2 of the Brewers’ NL Division Series sweep of the Colorado Rockies.
“I can’t be more happy right now. I already pitched one game in the playoffs. Now, I have a chance to pitch one more game, maybe two, and hopefully pitch in the World Series. That’s something that I always dreamed about.”
That Chacín would emerge as a staff ace at this stage of his career was an improbable development. He began his career in the hitter-friendly light air of Colorado, posting a 38-48 record and 3.78 ERA over six seasons. After that came stops in Arizona, Atlanta, Los Angeles (Angels) and San Diego, where he caught the Brewers’ attention by going 13-10 with a 3.89 ERA in 32 starts in 2017.
Since the early days of his career, Chacín’s body has thickened while his velocity has remained the same, with a fastball averaging about 90 mph. He cannot blow pitches by hitters, so he has changed his style of pitching. In particular, he developed one of the best sliders in the business, making life quite difficult for right-handed hitters.
“Everything started last year, and people in San Diego talking about throwing my slider more to lefties,” said Chacín, who increased the use of that pitch from 21% in 2016 to 35% last season to 44% this year. “After that, I started working on that, throwing my slider more to lefties, and I got comfortable with it.
“I started changing location, going backdoor (outside corner of the plate), going back foot (of the hitter). I changed my velocity (on that pitch), too. I got comfortable with that. I just change velocity, change arm angles, like making one pitch into three different pitches.”
Always willing to learn, and benefiting from the teaching prowess of Brewers pitching coach Derek Johnson, Chacín also mixed in a change-up more often to keep left-handed-hitters guessing, and isn’t opposed to throwing the occasional cutter. To make things even more interesting, he varies his timing and delivery, sometimes broaching on quick-pitching a batter.
“When I got here, they just told me the same thing, just keep working on what you were doing last year, and then I was working on my (change-up) a little bit,” Chacín said. "But, always, my slider has been my big pitch.”
Chacín’s slider has been death on right-handed hitters, who batted a mere .178 against him in 2018 with a .528 OPS. But he also did a better job of limiting the damage of lefties, who batted .261 with a .781 OPS.
Though a workhorse in terms of making every start, Chacín fell into the same pattern of other “initial out-getters” on the staff, often getting removed from games after five innings, six at most. Analytics show it can be dangerous to allow the first pitcher to go through a lineup more than twice, unless you’re a Justin Verlander or Clayton Kershaw, so Counsell has been quick with the hook.
It became evident early on that the bullpen was the strength of the team, and Counsell doesn’t hesitate to use it. The Dodgers have roughed up the late-inning relievers in the first two games of the NLCS, nearly pulling out Game 1 and rallying from three runs down to take Game 2, 4-3, but Counsell isn’t going to change the pitching plan at this stage.
“Whenever Counsell wants to take you out, you just have to give the ball to the bullpen, especially with the bullpen that we have,” Chacín said. “Our mindset is just trying to get 27 outs (with as many pitchers as it takes) and win the ballgame."
When Counsell announced his first three “initial out-getters” for the NLCS, it surprised some that he lined up Chacín for Game 3 instead of one of the first two at Miller Park. The last time Chacín pitched at Dodger Stadium, on Aug. 2, he was roughed up for nine runs in 4 1/3 innings, including three homers, in what became the Brewers’ biggest debacle of the season, a 21-5 thumping.
Sort of the pitching version of returning to the scene of the crime but Chacín didn’t appear the least bit superstitious about taking the mound in Dodger Stadium again.
“I know this year it wasn’t my best game there but during the season you’ve got one or two bad games,” he said. “I know people might talk about that a lot. But I’m just going to go out, try to give my team a chance to win the game, and just have fun.”
This is where Chacín always wanted to be. October baseball. His team counting on him.
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