Only two Yankees heard perceptible boos Tuesday in the Bronx.
The first was Giancarlo Stanton, as the Stadium fans displayed some relatively mild displeasure during the Game 3 intros, presumably because of the quad strain keeping him out of the lineup.
Adam Ottavino, however, got it much worse.
And unlike Stanton, his boos were strictly performance-based. Ottavino, in the midst of a nightmare October, was the primary seventh-inning saboteur in the Yankees’ 4-1 loss to the Astros, a deflating open to the Bronx portion of this ALCS, which Houston now leads, two games to one.
With the Yankees trying to stay close, down 2-0, Ottavino walked George Springer leading off the seventh and then with Springer running surrendered a single to Jose Altuve, who slapped it through the right side of the infield.
And that was it. Out came Aaron Boone, and after handing off the baseball, Ottavino was loudly booed on his way off the field. Mercifully, the annoyed crowd of 48,998 kept it brief, befitting Ottavino’s short cameo.
“I was just mad at myself,” Ottavino said. “It’s just frustrating when you go out there and you don’t perform the way you want to -- despite having a good mindset, and being determined, and all that stuff. I didn’t shy away from it. I wanted it. It just didn’t happen. So I was frustrated that I put the team in a tough spot.”
The problem with relying on bullpen superiority to mow through October is that you become a machine that needs many different parts to function together. If one of those pieces fail, the whole thing can blow up. After Ottavino spent that inning leaking oil, the Astros scored two runs off Zack Britton on a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly.
“It’s just execution, and he knows that,” Britton said. “He’s been outstanding. He’s probably been our best reliever all year, so we’re going to need him.”
In theory, the Yankees built what they believed to be a mostly fail-safe bullpen, with Ottavino a crucial cog in the operation. Of Brian Cashman’s $66-million bullpen makeover last winter, the GM spent $27 million on Ottavino, the plan being that Ottavino’s wicked slider would compliment Britton’s bowling-ball sinker and Chad Green’s fearsome four-seam fastball.
During the regular season, Ottavino pitched mostly as advertised, with an 11.9 K/9 ratio, though his 1.312 WHIP pointed to a troubling amount of traffic. The Yankees are a team constructed for October, however, and Ottavino picked a terrible time for his worst stretch of the year.
Ottavino has faced 16 batters so far, allowing six hits, three walks and three runs -- while recording only seven outs. Remember when those isolated walks to the Twins’ Nelson Cruz felt like a big deal during the Division Series? Turns out, that was merely the fire alarm going off. At the time, the Yankees preferred to believe it was a momentary glitch.
But there was no brushing aside what happened Sunday night in Game 2, when Ottavino’s first pitch -- another wayward slider -- wound up getting smashed by George Springer for the tying home run in the fifth inning. The Astros didn’t score again until Carlos Correa’s walkoff homer in the 11th.
Despite Ottavino’s warning signs, Aaron Boone isn’t ready to give up on him in high-leverage situations. How can he? Ottavino already is written into the Yankees’ October script. To remove him now would mean finding another way to navigate all these innings, for a team that purposely wants to deploy its relief corps early and often. And the Yankees don’t have a replacement.
“Yeah, we’ll continue to use him,” Boone said. “I thought he was in the midst of a pretty good opening at-bat there with Springer and then he loses him. We’ve put him in some tough spots, obviously, in the lineup. He’s just got to be a little sharper with his command, a little sharper with his stuff, and we’re going to need him moving forward.”
Forget forward. The Yankees have turned to him twice already in this ALCS, and Ottavino has fallen on his face each time. They really can’t afford another one, but Boone must feel like he has no choice. Either Ottavino figures it out, or the Yankees’ bullpen strategy collapses, like a wobbly Jenga stack, and the pursuit of No. 28 ends prematurely.
“I think everybody’s thrown the ball really well, except for me,” Ottavino said. “I know they’re going to do their jobs and I have confidence, when I get another opportunity, I’ll do my job.”
Maybe this is the bottom for Ottavino. It doesn’t get much lower for a Yankee than being booed off the mound in the Bronx. October isn’t over yet, but he’s running out of time for redemption.