Ask the average baseball fan in Cleveland what they know or remember best about veteran reliever Joba Chamberlain and the answer will be essentially the same. Tribe fans remember the burly right-hander for what has become known as “the bug game”, or Game 2 of the 2007 American League Division Series.
On a night at Progressive Field in which it seemed the hated New York Yankees were going to take the playoff series back to the Bronx even at a game apiece, mother nature took over. The Tribe bats never could get anything going. Then, a swam of bugs descended onto the ballpark and bothered Chamberlain much more than Tribe starter Fausto Carmona.
Chamberlain surrendered a run and blew the save without allowing a hit. The tiny bugs that would not stay away from the then-Yankees hurler bothered him so much he walked two batters and uncorked a pair of wild pitches as the Indians tied the game. The Tribe eventually won the contest in extra innings and took a 2-0 edge on the road. After losing game three, the Tribe took the fourth game of the series to advance to the American League Championship Series.
The ALDS and the fortunes of both the Indians and Yankees may have changed in one inning, all due to a swarm of bugs that Chamberlain simply could not ignore and shake off.
At the time, Chamberlain was rookie phenom and seemed destined for a future closer’s role. Many saw him as New York’s replacement for Mariano Rivera. Sadly, for Chamberlain, his career peaked in its first two campaigns. Up to the bug game, he has been absolutely dominant with a 0.38 ERA in 19 games, covering 24 innings in his first Major League season. He followed that up with a fine second season, posting a 2.60 ERA in 42 outings, including 12 starts as the Yankees tried to make Chamberlain a starter. That experiment ended after a trying 2009 season as his ERA ballooned to 4.75 in his only full season as a starter.
Since then, Chamberlain has been up and down, with his ERA hovering right around 4.00. He has shown flashes of what made him such a promising reliever nine years ago. However, it feels like that fateful evening on the shores of Lake Erie may have changed the fortunes for the righty. He has never rediscovered his truly dominant form he once had.
Perhaps the best way to slay those dragons and demons is to do so in the uniform of the team against which he was pitching. Now a veteran journeyman, Chamberlain’s travels have seemingly brought him full circle as he will now be in Goodyear with the Indians this spring with a chance to earn a roster spot. He is a non-roster invitee as the Indians have invited a number of relievers to camp with the hopes of beefing up its bullpen behind closer Cody Allen and setup man Bryan Shaw.
Chamberlain has a chance to find himself in Cleveland on Opening Day as the Tribe faces off against a familiar foe for him in the Boston Red Sox. A member of the Yankees for seven seasons, Chamberlain saw New York’s rival Red Sox plenty of times. Now, he could do so wearing an Indians uniform.
Cleveland will have a lot of arms in camp this spring looking to earn Major League roster spots, but the veteran Chamberlain certainly has a chance to emerge from the pack. He needs to prove first that his final month in Kansas City in 2015 was a fluke. He spent the majority of the year in Detroit, putting up average numbers with a 4.09 ERA in 30 games and 22 innings. However, when he joined the Royals to help their bullpen in the stretch run, he was not even mediocre. He carried a 7.94 ERA, appearing in six games over five and two-thirds frames for the eventual World Series champions.
However, his first year with the Tigers, 2014, was not so bad. That year he had 3.75 ERA. He is not far removed from having decent success in the big leagues. If he can go to camp in reasonable shape – he has always been a bigger man – he could still prove helpful to a Major League bullpen. At the age of 30, there is plenty of room for a comeback. He is far from over the hill.
Another thing that helps Chamberlain is his playoff experience on a team that is largely void of it. Most of the core players on the Tribe roster have logged one game of postseason play – the 2013 one-game Wild Card loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. Others do not even have the one contest to fall back on, in terms of playoff experience.
Chamberlain, on the other hand, has seen a lot of the postseason with the Yankees and Tigers. He was part of New York’s World Series title team of 2009. He was also in the playoffs in 2007, 2010, 2012, and 2014. Provided that he can prove in spring training that he still has the ability to pitch well out of the pen, Chamberlain can be an asset on a young team. He would be helpful in teaching a team that does not have a lot of big-game history how to handle the kind of adversity and challenges a pennant chase can usually bring.
Of course, playoff-acumen aside, if Chamberlain can not prove to be a valuable commodity on the mound, the Indians will have other options.
It does seem likely, though, that Chamberlain will be able to prove his worth as a player and possible veteran leader. It would not be surprising to seem him lock down one of the Tribe’s final roster and bullpen spots near the end of the Cactus League season. If he does, he will finally get the opportunity to give Indians fans something to remember, a visual picture to have, outside of bugs flying in his face and causing an unforgettable moment in Tribe history.
Photo: Ed Zurga/Getty Images