The weakest link: Adam Ottavino has made Yankees' bullpen mortal

NEW YORK — The boos rained down on Adam Ottavino while he walked off the field Tuesday night, the collective frustration of 48,995 fans that have watched Ottavino pour kerosene on almost every situation he’s been thrust into this October.

This time, Ottavino failed to retire both Houston Astros hitters he faced in the seventh inning, allowing a walk and a single before New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone had seen enough. Both runs ultimately scored, turning a two-run deficit into a four-run hole.

And when going against Gerrit Cole, those runs all but ended the game, an eventual 4-1 Houston win.

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As Ottavino watched the inning unfold, his inability to deliver on this night ate at him.

“I was just mad at myself,” Ottavino said afterward at his locker. “It’s frustrating when you go out there and don’t perform the way you want to when you have a good mindset. I wanted it. Just didn’t happen.”

As the Yankees try to navigate October without elite starting pitching and instead riding their high-priced relievers, Ottavino has thus far been the weakest link, the one blemish that could derail this 103-win team and leave them out of the World Series for a 10th straight year. Ottavino owns an 11.57 ERA, and recognizes he could be demoted from high-leverage work.

New York Yankees relief pitcher Adam Ottavino has struggled in October with an 11.57 ERA. (Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)
New York Yankees relief pitcher Adam Ottavino has struggled in October with an 11.57 ERA. (Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)

“It’s not over yet. I think I’ll get another opportunity, hopefully. I’m not going to let it define me, dwell on a couple pitches here and there. It’s frustrating,” Ottavino said. “These are the type of games I want to be in and why I came to this team and everything I wanted my whole life. I want to do better and I want to get out there again. That’s it.”

All it takes is one pitcher to be off

Since the Yankees don’t have a standout rotation, they need their bullpen to lead them to a championship.

The biggest concern for teams relying on their bullpens in October — compared to riding starting pitchers like the Astros and Washington Nationals — is that it requires each cog in the wheel to be on each night.

While the Astros can ride an ace like Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole, the Yankees are hoping that four to five pitchers, if not more, are going to be at their best each time they’re called upon.

All it takes is one pitcher to be off to put the Yankees in a bad spot. And that pitcher has been Ottavino. His postseason began by walking Nelson Cruz in Game 1 of the ALDS, leading to an immediate removal from the game, and the same result happened in Game 3.

Two days ago, Ottavino blew a 2-1 lead in the sixth inning of Game 2 against the Astros when he hung a first-pitch slider to George Springer and the outfielder crushed a game-tying homer.

Tommy Kahnle had to strand two runners that reached against Ottavino to keep the game tied.

Ten of the 16 batters Ottavino has faced have reached against him, a stark contrast to when he posted a 1.90 ERA, his best ERA for any season in which he appeared more than 10 times.

“Right now, it’s not making pitches at a high enough clip I’m accustomed to,” said Ottavino, who signed a three-year, $27-million deal this offseason. “It’s a game based on results, you got to get them.”

Ottavino can’t put his finger on why he’s struggled, believing he has gotten past his recent mechanical issues, but he’s been burned by his struggles to retire the leadoff batters.

He entered a 2-0 game in the seventh inning Tuesday to face the top of the Astros lineup, which means facing Springer, who torched him two days ago with that series-changing blast. Ottavino got ahead in the count, 1-2, but couldn’t put him away.

He felt he overthrew the next pitch, and then credited Springer for laying off the 2-2 pitch. Ottavino then missed on a 3-2 pitch, walking a leadoff batter for the third time in six outings.

The Astros then executed a hit and run with Jose Altuve shooting a single to right field through the vacated hole at second base to put runners on the corners. Ottavino departed to a chorus of boos, and the Astros all but ended the game by plating the next two runs on a wild pitch by Zack Britton and a sacrifice fly to left field by Yuli Gurriel.

“I’ll stay ready for my next chance,” Ottavino said. “I’ll work really hard behind the scenes and be confident when I go in there and that’s all I can do. I want to be out there. See what happens.”

Adam Ottavino failed to record an out in ALCS Game 3 on Tuesday night. (Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports)
Adam Ottavino failed to record an out in ALCS Game 3 on Tuesday night. (Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports)

Time for a change?

After relying on Ottavino in critical spots all season long, Boone is now left with the tough decision of whether to remove Ottavino from high-leverage situations or keep the faith.

The playoffs force managers to react to small sample sizes that they would dismiss in the regular season. A rough six-game stretch in May or June would not sound the alarms. In October, when four games decide your season, a manager can’t be too late to react or his team will watch other teams sip champagne.

Boone seemed to indicate some concern before the game about Ottavino when asked of the righty’s struggles along with those of designated hitter, Edwin Encarnacion. Boone was adamant Encarnacion would be fine, but said Ottavino is needed to get big outs. There seemed to be more conviction that Encarnacion will return to form.

After the game, Boone reiterated that this team needs Ottavino to deliver.

“We'll continue to use him. He was in the midst of a pretty good opening at-bat there with Springer and loses him. That's obviously difficult when you come in from the pen and you have a leadoff walk, especially at the top of the lineup. We've put him in some tough spots obviously in the lineup, and then they're running. And Altuve's first-pitch hit and the night's over,” Boone said. “Just got to be a little sharper with his command, a little sharper with his stuff. We're going to need him moving forward.”

The Yankees certainly will encounter situations in the remainder of the series that would normally be reserved for Ottavino. But it’s possible this skid could cost him his high-leverage spot, with the Yankees perhaps instead turning to Chad Green.

Ottavino can only hope that he can redeem himself.

“I just want to win for the team and for the guys. I just want to do my job,” Ottavino said. “That’s the most frustrating thing. I feel good. I feel my mindset is good, not letting anything get in there, just consistently not getting the job done so it’s a little frustrating.”

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