Jhoulys Chacin gave up four runs on six hits against the Cincinnati Reds on July 24. The Milwaukee Brewers placed him on the injured list the next day with what was said to be a strained right oblique.
It was really more of a fractured earned run average given what had been a series of poor starts. Chacin was released a month later, completing an unlikely journey from Opening Day starter to free agent.
His fastball command disappeared and Chacin was left relying his slider. The hitters knew it and the 31-year-old righthander was hit hard.
On Friday night, Chacin returned to the majors, a desperate pitcher starting for a Red Sox team desperate to stay in contention for a playoff spot.
In what has been a season of unexpected setbacks, the Sox got a surprising lift as Chacin pitched two perfect innings in a 6-1 victory against the Yankees.
“That felt good, man,” he said.
Baseball is endlessly unpredictable. Chacin had not faced hitters in 43 days before D.J. LeMahieu stepped to the plate in the first inning. He needed three pitches to produce a groundout to shortstop.
Chacin then struck put Aaron Judge, Didi Gregorius, Gary Sanchez, and Edwin Encarnacion before Gleyber Torres grounded to third.
“I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to pitch. I was worried about throwing strikes and I’m happy with the result,” said Chacin, who threw 23 of his 35 pitches for strikes
Chacin threw first-pitch strikes to four of the six hitters and didn’t let a ball out of the infield with a mix of fastballs and sliders.
“He put us in a good spot and we moved forward,” Sox manager Alex Cora said.
At a time when many pitchers are using high fastballs and breaking balls in the dirt to combat hitters trying to get the ball in the air, Chacin worked side to side and expanded the corners of the strike zone.
“He’s done it before. He’s pitched in big games,” Cora said. “He’s an accomplished big leaguer and he set the tempo right away.”
The second inning was impressive. Chacin got ahead of Sanchez and came back to strike him out on a slider that finished down and away. He did the same with Encarnacion before winning a 10-pitch battle with Torres by getting a groundout.
“I was able to throw off the plate, to get swing and miss and weak contact,” Chacin said.
Cora was not tempted to have Chacin continue. Two innings was enough after six weeks off. Six other pitchers combined with Chacin to hold the Yankees to three hits with three walks and 13 strikeouts.
Three of those pitchers — Chacin, Ryan Weber, and Bobby Poyner — were September call-ups.
Chacin returned to his home in Arizona after the Brewers released him. He met the Sox in Anaheim last week and threw in the bullpen at Angel Stadium last Friday.
For a month’s worth of the prorated minimum salary, the Sox gave him a chance. Chacin had other opportunities but was intrigued by the Sox.
“I felt it was the best opportunity here,” he said. “They’re World Series champions. It was a no-brainer to come here.”
Chacin would help the Sox in other ways, too. He’s been in the majors for 11 years and started 222 games, no small feat.
“There’s a lot of respect for him already,” said Eduardo Rodriguez, a fellow Venezuelan. “He’s a good guy, too. The way he pitched, a lot of people were happy. We needed that.”
The Sox will try to beat the Yankees with another bullpen game on Saturday. Travis Lakins will get the start, his first in the majors. He may be good for four or five outs.
The Sox are carrying 21 pitchers and they could use 18 or 19 of them before this series is over. Every inning is a grind for Cora and pitching coach Dana LeVangie. But all six pitching changes worked on Friday night.
“I’ve never seen that many pitchers in the bullpen before, not even in September,” said Chacin, who joked that he’s still learning everybody’s name and what kind of handshake they like. “It’s a cool experience for me.”
Lakins will become the 14th starter the Sox have used this season, the most since 2006. If they can take three of four against the Yankees in this series, then next week becomes interesting.
“Probably the talk this weekend is they can put us away for good for the playoff hunt,” Cora said. “We’ll see where it goes.”