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NEW YORK — The short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium has gotten the best of several pitchers over the years.
Yet Houston Astros righty Gerrit Cole — arguably the greatest pitcher on the planet these days — was able to withstand the dreaded 314 sign and the mighty Bronx Bombers on Tuesday night.
He didn’t have his best stuff by many means.
But that’s what makes him the best in the business.
He can keep putting up zeroes on the scoreboard without it.
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“He wasn’t as electric or as sharp as usual,” a scout in attendance told Yahoo Sports. “But he was still able to win. And that’s what makes him great.”
Cole morphed from strikeout artist into escape artist in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, stranding nine Yankees over seven shutout innings, and the Astros beat New York 4-1 to take a 2-1 series lead.
“That’s one of his best qualities is when he doesn’t have a pitch or he doesn’t have command and he figures out how to get the job done,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said. “And we can all learn from that.”
The 29-year-old righty improved to 19-0 with a 1.59 ERA in his last 25 starts, posting 258 strikeouts in 169 1/3 innings over that span. In the playoffs, he’s 3-0 with a 0.40 ERA in three starts, posting 32 strikeouts in 22 1/3 innings over that span.
“I think he’s the best pitcher in baseball right now,” Hinch said. “His competition is right next to him in the clubhouse (Justin Verlander). They’re certainly a good pair. I watch what (Stephen) Strasburg is doing, I see what (Max) Scherzer is doing, (Jacob) deGrom in this city. There’s a lot of big names. But I’m obviously biased to my guys.
“Gerrit is locked in. And to see him do it on the big stage in a playoff game with the magnitude of this game, it was pretty awesome.”
As Cole walked to his postgame press conference in the bowels of the stadium, Verlander’s wife, Kate Upon, waved to Cole and told him, “good game.”
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It sure was. A big-game pitcher stepping up on the biggest stage. His latest showcase heading into a winter of riches.
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.”
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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.
NEW YORK — Josh Reddick is set to return to right field at Yankee Stadium.
Reddick didn’t play in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series and was a late-inning substitution in Game 2.
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Manager A.J. Hinch said Monday that Reddick will start Game 3, which will return Kyle Tucker to the Astros’ bench.
“Kyle has had a mixed bag of some success,” Hinch said Monday at Yankee Stadium. “I like the swing off (Masahiro) Tanaka, I thought he had some pretty good at-bats. I thought he had some good at-bats at the end of the ALDS. Obviously we all saw (Sunday) night it was a tough at-bat. Again, he’s still growing and maturing and learning. This is a really big stage for him; he can handle it.
“How right field maps out, honestly, if I’m going to ask our players to worry about one game, I’m going to worry about one game. Reddick is going to play right, as I said at the beginning of the series, in Game 3. How it goes after that will be announced at the appropriate time.”
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.
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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.
Back up the money truck
Cole is on the verge of being paid handsomely — a free-agent-to-be at season’s end.
There will be no shortage of suitors for his services, basically any big-market team with big bucks to spend.
And Cole may end up breaking David Price’s record contract for a starter of seven years, $217 million
The California Kid could head back home to the Los Angeles Dodgers (after their latest playoff disappointment) or Angels. Or maybe he could come east to join the Philadelphia Phillies or Washington Nationals (if they lose Stephen Strasburg). Or maybe he could finally join his childhood favorite team, the Yankees.
New York selected Cole, who grew up a Yankees fan, in the first round of the 2008 MLB Draft, but couldn’t even get him to the negotiating table. Cole wanted to play college baseball for UCLA — and a reported $4 million signing bonus didn’t make him change his mind.
A decade later, the Yankees again tried to acquire him from the Pittsburgh Pirates. But the Bombers were unwilling to include emerging youngsters Gleyber Torres or Miguel Andujar in a trade package, instead insisting on Clint Frazier and Nick Solak as centerpieces of a potential deal.
It was understandable at the time, as Cole was coming off a down season in which he went 12-12 with a 4.26 ERA and 31 homers allowed. Yet the Astros were the beneficiaries, ultimately landing Cole in exchange for Joe Musgrove, Colin Moran, Michael Feliz and Jason Martin and then turning his career around.
In an era of juiced — or now maybe unjuiced — baseballs and openers, Cole is a rare commodity, a starter with the ability to go deep in games and face opposing lineups three or four times in a single night.
And on Tuesday night, 48,998 fans went home unhappy because of him.
Pulling off a Houdini Act
Cole’s fastball maxed out at 100.3 mph and he got 13 swinging strikes on 112 pitches. Five of his seven strikeouts came via his slider.
But he also gave up four hits and a staggering five walks, several times overcoming traffic on the basepaths. In the first, he stranded the bases loaded. In the second, third and fifth, he stranded a pair.
Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius came closest to breaking through against Cole. With two on, two out and the Astros up 2-0 in the fifth, Gregorius lifted a long fly ball toward the short porch in right.