Fastball command helping Ottavino find groove
After rocky June, Rockies right-hander rediscovering dominant form
DENVER -- Adam Ottavino's slider has long been known to make a grown man cry. And with his fastball back to consistently touching 97 mph this month, scouts are now jumping back aboard the right-hander's bandwagon as a future closer.
Despite surrendering 14 runs in 11 2/3 innings in June, Ottavino never doubted his potential as the last man on the mound.
"I think I could do it," Ottavino said. "I've felt that way for a while. But my job is to pitch when they tell me to pitch."
When Ottavino's closer hype train first left the station in the first two months of the season, he found himself being told to pitch quite often. He appeared in 27 of the Rockies' first 55 games. On June 1, Ottavino found himself sitting on a 1.46 ERA and a 0.73 WHIP.
But after watching opponents bat an absurd .537 on balls put in play against Ottavino over the next 30 days, it would have been easy for him to second-guess himself. At the very least, no one would have blamed him if he fell back on his bread-and-butter slider, a pitch that has held opponents to a lifetime .200 average.
Ottavino took a decidedly different route.
Determined to master his fastball command, Ottavino stuck with his repertoire even through the rough patch. This season, he's throwing his fastball for a strike 21.8 percent of the time, more than doubling his previous career rate.
"I think it's just getting into a groove," Ottavino said. "Relief pitchers especially, we try to get into a groove and stay there. ... Sometimes it's hard to see all the progress that you've made, but I know I've made progress over the last few years with my fastball command, and it's starting to show up in the games more and more."
It has certainly showed up from July on. Since Ottavino's ERA ballooned to as high as 4.63 on June 25, he's posted a 2.25 ERA over his last 22 appearances.
"With a relief pitcher, they're going to go through cycles were they get some dead arm and bounce back," manager Walt Weiss said. "I think Otto is one of those bounce-back periods right now."
Ottavino's extreme distaste for walks is the reason Weiss stuck with him during his brief downturn. Beyond LaTroy Hawkins' impending club option and Rex Brothers' struggles, it's also what could make Ottavino the leading candidate for Colorado's ninth-inning duties next season.
Ottavino is striking out four batters for each free pass this season, a career-best rate that leads all Rockies pitchers with at least 15 innings pitched.
Stats like that are why Weiss has called upon Ottavino to pitch without rest 15 times and make nine appearances of multiple innings.
One of those multiple-inning outings came last Friday against the Reds. Ottavino got a chance to prove himself in that final frame of a 2-2 game following his 1-2-3 eighth. Despite right-handed batters hitting .236 against Ottavino over his four-year career, Kris Negron poked a go-ahead single into center with two outs and runner on second.
"I'll take Otto in that situation every time against a right-handed bat trying to get that last out," Weiss said after Ottavino took his fourth loss of the season.
The next time Colorado took the field, Weiss gave Ottavino a chance to hold another tie in the eighth inning of Game 2 of a doubleheader vs. Cincinnati. Ottavino responded with a scoreless frame, striking out two -- including Negron -- before earning his first win of 2014 thanks to the Rockies' five-run eighth-inning rally.
In his most recent outing on Tuesday, Ottavino had his same electric stuff against the Royals, just without the same results. Taking over for left-hander Tyler Matzek with two on and two out, Ottavino served up back-to-back doubles to blow a 2-1 lead.
Although no starter likes to be pulled in that situation, Matzek can't think of another pitcher to whom he'd feel more comfortable handing the ball.
"Obviously, I wanted to say in there and finish the job," Matzek said. "But I trusted Otto. And I trust him 100 percent."