LOS ANGELES — After spending three years trying to rebuild his career, Jhoulys Chacín emerged as a major factor in one of the Milwaukee Brewers’ best seasons ever.
The right-hander not only helped the Brewers collect 96 victories, tying a team record, to secure the National League Central Division. Chacín also won 15 games and amassed 156 strikeouts, both team highs and personal bests.
The 30-year old will continue the Brewers’ quest for their second World Series appearance by starting tonight’s third game of the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. In Game 2 of the NLDS, Chacín conceded just three hits and three walks in five shutout innings during a 4-0 victory over the Colorado Rockies.
“Jhoulys has been as much as we could ever hope for when we signed him this winter,” manager Craig Counsell said. “He’s taken the ball every fifth day and delivered good results. He’s just been a very stabilizing presence for us. During the course of 162 games, you need that consistency, that durability. On top of that, he’s just pitched wonderfully, especially in some really big games. He’s just been an anchor to our pitching staff.”
Yet as recently as four years ago, Chacín was struggling to stay in the major leagues.
In 2013, the Venezuelan right-hander achieved his best season to that point: a 14-10 record with a team-high 126 strikeouts for the Rockies. But during spring training in 2014, Chacín strained his right shoulder. He spent five weeks on the disabled list from March 28 to May 3, then lost seven of eight decisions before returning June 30 to the disabled list — where he spent the rest of the season.
When the Rockies released Chacín on March 28, 2015, his odyssey began. He signed with the Cleveland Indians three weeks later, who sent him to their Triple-A club in Columbus, Ohio. Chacín lost three of four minor-league decisions and the Indians released him June 18. Two days later, the Arizona Diamondbacks signed Chacín but he spent most of his time with the Triple-A team in Reno, Nev. The right-hander made just five appearances for Arizona, four of them starts, before becoming a free agent.
Despite the setbacks, Chacín remained determined.
“I never lost confidence in myself,” he said. “I always said that if I get back to being healthy, I know I can pitch better.”
The Atlanta Braves took a chance and signed Chacín in February 2016. After one minor-league start, the Braves recalled Chacín, who pitched in five games before being traded May 11 to the Los Angeles Angels for Adam McCreery. With the Angels, Chacín made more starts (17), appeared in more games (29) and threw more innings (117 1/3) than he had since 2013 while compiling a 5-6 record.
In his best performance, Chacín pitched his first complete game in five years. The right-hander accumulated 10 strikeouts while conceding only one walk and four hits in a 5-1 victory over Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers.
The turning point came when Chacín signed a one-year contract in December 2016 to become part of the the San Diego Padres’ patchwork rotation. The Padres encouraged Chacín to use his slider more often. Chacín called 2016 “the year I finally got back to normal.”
“Over my career, I threw it more against lefties than righties,” he said. “Last year with San Diego, they made me throw the backdoor slider more, then mix it up with a back-foot slider. Then on my own, I started doing different stuff with my slider. I tried to make it slower. Sometimes, I tried to make it look like a curveball.
Sometimes, I’d change my arm angle with the slider. For me, it’s the same pitch but it looks different to the hitters.”
As a result, Chacín became one of only two of the Padres’ starters to end the season with a winning record while leading San Diego with 14 victories and 153 strikeouts. That performance piqued the Brewers’ interest.
“He was a player that I know some members of our front office have liked for a long time and followed closely for a long time,”Counsell said. “We were excited to get him.”
The feeling was mutual.
“When free agency started, they called me up,” Chacín said. “Milwaukee was the first team that called my agent. It made it easier for me. Milwaukee was my first priority.”
Chacín negotiated a two-year contract because he noticed how special the Brewers could be when he pitched for the Padres.
“Last year, when we played against them, you could tell the chemistry they have, how they were having fun,” he said. “They were winning, too. They fell one game short of making the playoffs. It’s a young team. It’s a good team. They’re playing well. It’s something you think about.”
Joining the Brewers enabled Chacín to expand his repertoire.
“This year, I’m also throwing more change-ups, too, which is something that has helped me with my slider and my two-seamer,” he said. “Every time I threw my four-seamer, that’s when I took the hitter by surprise. That’s one of the keys.”
For Counsell, seeing Chacín pitch means savoring an aesthetic experience.
“It’s a thrill for me to watch competitors, and Jhoulys is a true competitor,” Counsell said. “He’s out on the mound thinking of ways to beat you. He’s got a number of different tricks in his bag, so to speak, that he goes to. I enjoy that. It’s gamesmanship. It’s competitiveness. It’s creativity on the mound. That’s a cool way to watch baseball. It’s a cool way to pitch. It really is.”
Left-hander Wade Miley expressed his appreciation more succinctly.
“We get to watch him go out there and pitch, which is something we’re losing track of in this game,” Miley said. “He pitches with everything he has and give us quality innings pretty much every time out.”
With his own career stabilized, Chacín can afford to provide stability to others.
“He’s just a leader,” Miley said. “He takes guys under his wing. He’s always looking to help people. When it’s his turn to pitch, he’s pretty serious about what he’s got to do. But on the four other days, he spends a lot of time caring about the other guys.”
With the Brewers three wins away from the World Series, Chacín enjoys the opportunity to fulfill a cherished goal.
“I always watch every postseason game on TV,” he said. “You can see all the pressure, the adrenaline. Even when you’re watching the TV, you can feel it. I always wanted to feel that, personally.
“Finally, I have a chance to make that happen. I can’t ask for a better year than this.”