NEW YORK -- The Yankees came into the postseason hoping to ride their vaunted bullpen to the World Series. Their starters don't pitch particularly deep into games, but their bullpen, thanks to built-in off-days, would help carry the load. That was the plan.
The bullpen-heavy strategy is starting to fall apart in the ALCS, primarily because right-hander Adam Ottavino has been miserable in October. The Brooklyn-raised slider specialist struck out 88 batters with a 1.90 ERA in 66 1/3 innings during the regular season. He was an ace setup man through and through.
In the postseason though, Ottavino has retired only six of 18 batters faced. There have been two errors made behind him, and he has rolled a double play ball, but overall Ottavino has been wholly ineffective this postseason, and the Yankee Stadium crowd has showered him with boos the last two games.
"So obviously frustrating for him right now, but it's about execution," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said following his team's ALCS Game 4 loss (). "So that's been the bugaboo in some different situations for him."
Ottavino has appeared in all seven Yankees postseason games and six times he was brought in to face a very specific -- and very dangerous -- right-handed batter. That's his "lane," as Boone likes to say. Ottavino is the right-on-right specialist. Five of those six right-handed batters reached base:
- ALDS Game 1: Walks Nelson Cruz with a runner on second and two outs in a 3-3 game.
- ALDS Game 3: Walks Cruz with a runner on first and two outs with a 2-0 lead.
- ALCS Game 1: Gets George Springer to fly out leading off the seventh inning with a 5-0 lead.
- ALCS Game 2: Gives up game-tying solo homer to Springer in the fifth inning.
- ALCS Game 3: Walks Springer on six pitches leading off the seventh down 2-0.
- ALCS Game 4: Gives up leadoff double to Alex Bregman leading off the eighth down 6-3.
Six matchups -- six "lanes" -- resulted in one out, three walks, a game-tying homer, and a double that led to an insurance run. Ottavino has retired only one of the eight batters he's faced in ALCS Games 2-3, and four times in his seven postseason appearances he's recorded zero outs. That's a new MLB record for a single postseason.
"I was just mad at myself," Ottavino said following ALCS Game 3. "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."
Ottavino's struggles have put added strain on the rest of the bullpen. Right-hander Chad Green threw two innings in ALCS Game 1 and appeared to be running on fumes in Game 4. The fastball Carlos Correa hit for a three-run homer Thursday night was maybe the worst pitch Green has thrown since returning from Triple-A in May.
Righty Tommy Kahnle has thrown 4 1/3 innings spread across three appearances and five days in the ALCS, and while he's been excellent overall, that's a big workload. The Yankees have to win three games in three days to win the ALCS and they'll need Kahnle to help win those games, and he's already thrown a lot this series.
Dellin Betances missed most of the season with a shoulder injury and suffered an Achilles injury in his first game back, robbing the Yankees of another high-end bullpen arm. , taking away a veteran option who, if nothing else, won't be overwhelmed by a big moment. New York is running low on options to cover for Ottavino.
James Paxton will start the must-win Game 5 on Friday night, and with Ottavino unplayable and both Green and Kahnle looking like they could use a breather, the best case scenario involves Paxton for six-plus innings, then Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman for the rest of the game. The Yankees will need a quicker hook with Paxton than they'd probably like.
Using the same 4-5 relievers every game is a stretch as a viable postseason strategy, and it becomes damn near impossible to win like that when one of those relievers turns into a pumpkin. Even if the Yankees do something miraculous and come back to win the ALCS, I'm not sure how this relief crew is supposed to get through another postseason round at this point.
Ottavino was brilliant during the regular season, but he has been a major liability in October, and it might be too late to turn things around and help the Yankees. His struggles impact the entire bullpen because it forces everyone else to pick up the slack. With their season now on the brink, the Yankees' greatest strength has become something of a liability.
"I still think he's got to play an important role for us, especially against this Houston lineup that a lot of their great players are right-handed hitters," Boone said following Game 3. "And just the way we're built and set up, he's going to have to still get important outs for us. I still feel like he's capable of that."