LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- If you watched the video -- and we all have watched the video -- it's hard to watch Aroldis Chapman throw a pitch now without a flashback to that moment.
The line-drive rocketing off the bat of Kansas City's Salvador Perez, back to the pitchers mound, the impact with Chapman's head, the ball rolling to the third base dugout, Chapman face down in front of the mound, his legs writhing. The spring training game, ended on the spot. Jay Bruce's reaction: "It was the most frightening thing I've ever been a part of."
I'm going to be honest. That vision went through my head on nearly every one of Chapman's 33 pitches against Norfolk in a rehab start Tuesday night for the Louisville Bats.
The fourth pitch Chapman threw, a 98-mile-per-hour fastball to Steve Lombardozzi, came back at him, a soft liner just over his head that wound up going into center field for a base hit. Two pitches later, another one came, lined over his head into center field.
I suppose that answers whether Chapman is facing any ill effects from the March 19 incident that has required six weeks and surgery to repair a broken bone above his left eye. Hours after the surgery, he Tweeted a picture of his head, a line of surgical staples stretching all the way across his skull.
Asked about the early line drives, Chapman said they didn't bother him.
"He said he didn't have any flashbacks or any thoughts about it," said Reds assistant trainer Rigo Febles, who served as his interpreter. "It did go over his head, but it wasn't hit firm. It was over his head, but he didn't have any ill thoughts about it."
No ill thoughts. Now, after his third rehab start, Chapman's thoughts are beginning to return to joining the team in Cincinnati. In his first two rehabilitation stints in Dayton, Chapman was relatively untouched. He pitched a couple of scoreless innings, needing only 34 pitches total to retire the sides, hitting 101 miles per hour on several pitches.
It didn't go as smoothly Tuesday night in Louisville. He retired only two batters in the first inning, threw 33 pitches (21 strikes), gave up four hits and five runs with a hit batter. He took the loss in a 9-4 decision. But it wasn't all as bad as the box score looked. He threw a double-play ball that the Bats couldn't convert, and cut off a throw from center that likely would've gotten the Bats their third out of the inning at the plate.
He said he felt comfortable on the mound, but that he just needed to find a little better control.
"He feels good physically," Febles said, relating Chapman's comments. "His fastball, he felt it was good but he didn't have the control tonight but he still felt good physically. . . . He said he just didn't have control of his fastball today. He obviously wasn't thinking about striking guys out, just trying to locate his fastball, but it wasn't there today."
What was there was the velocity. He hit 101 mph four times, and 100 on two other pitches. It's not the 104 mph that he has on the vanity plates on his Lamborghini, but he's getting there.
It's a miracle that he's there at all, when you think about it. As hard as he throws, to take a sharply hit line drive, it could've been much worse. Much worse.
But here he is, preparing to hit the "resume" button on his major league career, and there's little to be but thankful.
Someone asked him if he's getting impatient with his return to the Cincinnati Reds imminent. No, he said.
"Now it's a lot easier, because before he wasn't sure if he was going to pitch again this season, he wasn't throwing," Febles said, in translation. "Now he's on the mound and he is throwing, and he's close."
How close, he isn't sure, because he hasn't been told. He's scheduled to make a relief appearance near the end of Wednesday's afternoon game against Norfolk (11:05 a.m. first pitch).
"Physically and mentally he feels good," Febles said, translating Chapman's remarks. "He said it's not going to take a lot of time, maybe a couple of games, but he's ready to go."
You'd think there would be more of a mental hurdle. Perhaps it is to come later. Or perhaps a young player like Chapman is more warrior than worrier. His life would suggest so. His failed defection from Cuba, followed by a personal meeting with Fidel Castro. A successful defection a year later. Signing with the Reds for $30.25 million over six years, plus $16.25 million in bonus money, over 11 years.
This past February, ESPN The Magazine went to Chapman's mansion in Florida, with reporter Eli Saslow spending time with the pitcher and his family. They were bored. They missed life in Cuba. Even missed their three-bedroom home there. He had attained the American Dream, but still dreamed of home. It's understandable.
It all nearly was taken from him when Perez hit that fastball in March. Is he afraid on the mound, he was asked?
"With his two outings in Dayton, he didn't feel like he was timid or scared," he said through Febles. "Tonight he didn't feel like he was timid or scared. Tomorrow he's supposed to throw another inning, but to this point it hasn't affected him."
In some ways, you could say he has been through the worst and is just about back where he started before that fateful pitch.
He is appreciative to have returned to this point. He wasn't yet sharp. He got to two strikes on several batters, but couldn't put them away. He said working innings is important, because he simply hasn't been on the mound against live hitters for so long. But he feels comfortable on the mound. That's perhaps the most important thing. And he said he appreciates all the support he's gotten.
"He said he's thankful for all the people out there who are out there praying for him and wishing him well," Febles said. "He said he's had a lot of help throughout this process. . . . He wants to say thank you to all the fans, all the support that they've given him, all the things they've sent him. He's excited to be back on the mound pitching and to put on a show for them."