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Ottavino off to good start after tough 2017

Reliever pitches clean inning after focusing on first-pitch strikes
MLB.com @harding_at_mlb

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Taking Friday's first Cactus League game as a call to put up, Rockies righty reliever Adam Ottavino threw a spotless fifth inning with a strikeout to begin his quest to erase a poor 2017.

"It was embarrassing, quite frankly," Ottavino said. "It hurt, but it was good. It drove me pretty hard this offseason to get after it. We'll see what the results are."

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Taking Friday's first Cactus League game as a call to put up, Rockies righty reliever Adam Ottavino threw a spotless fifth inning with a strikeout to begin his quest to erase a poor 2017.

"It was embarrassing, quite frankly," Ottavino said. "It hurt, but it was good. It drove me pretty hard this offseason to get after it. We'll see what the results are."

Ottavino fanned Kristopher Negron to end a six-pitch at-bat, then retired Ildemaro Vargas on a grounder and Jeremy Hazelbaker on a fly ball in just four total pitches. Black said it was a continuation of an aggressive physical and mental program over the winter.

"We've seen that in the side sessions in the bullpen, batting practice and we saw that yesterday, so it's a really good train of thought for him," manager Bud Black said.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

Last spring, Ottavino issued eight walks and gave up nine hits in 9 2/3 innings. But since Ottavino was considered one of the sport's better righty relievers, the belief was he knew what he was doing. But performance didn't click in when the results counted. In 63 appearances covering 53 1/3 innings, Ottavino walked 39 (against 63 strikeouts), yielded 48 hits and went 2-3 with a 5.06 ERA.

The real pain came at the end, when Ottavino was omitted from the roster for the Rockies' 11-8 loss to the D-backs in the National League Wild Card Game.

The Rockies have added closer Wade Davis and former Indians setup man Bryan Shaw to the right side of the late bullpen. Carlos Estevez and Scott Oberg were righties who surpassed Ottavino in trust factor last year, and are pushing for more. But, knowing Black likes spreading late-innings opportunities among several trusted relievers, Ottavino, 32, plans to re-establish his status in the final year of a three-year, $10.4 million contract.

"If I do my job and I pitch the way I'm capable of pitching, I'll be in the mix," Ottavino said. "The years that I throw strikes and get ahead, I've always had success. Last year, I started out as an integral part of the 'pen and ended up not even on the playoff team, so it can go the other way in a heartbeat."

Video: LAD@COL: Ottavino fans Barnes to strike out the side

Ottavino experienced a stunning change in how umpires called his pitches at the borders of the strike zone last season. But rather than blame the umpires, he has focused on hitting the strike zone earlier in counts, which can help him control the plate appearance.

Ottavino's struggles last season demonstrated the value of a 0-1 count over a 1-0.

According to Statcast™, last season Ottavino faced 244 batters and accomplished a strike 103 times -- 80 called, 10 swings and missed, 13 foul balls -- or 42.2 percent. Previously with the Rockies (2012-16), Ottavino garnered strikes on 549 of his 1,090 first pitches, or 50.4 percent. Even more striking, he threw 129 first-pitch balls last year and hit a batter (53.3 percent non-strikes), after balls on just 423 plus four hit batters on his previous initial pitches (39.2 percent).

On Friday, two of his first pitches were called strikes, one on his signature slider, one on a fastball. The other was a slider off the plate, arm side. He concentrated on hitting targets -- "training my focus muscle, if you will" -- during the winter.

"I'm not getting cute, just trying to get everybody out in front of me -- get ahead, do all the things I worked on this offseason," Ottavino said. "I got all that experimenting, tinkering, done in the winter. Maybe last year I came in trying to work on things during this time."

Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter and like his Facebook page.

Colorado Rockies, Adam Ottavino