BOSTON -- The bridge to closer Matt Barnes looks like it is finally getting sturdier.
That’s because the key to the success of that bridge, veteran righty setup man Adam Ottavino, is starting to regain his footing with the Red Sox.
Ottavino was never better than on Friday night, when with a 4-3 lead in the eighth, he mowed through the top three hitters in the Angels’ batting order -- including Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout -- on 18 pitches.
The key for Ottavino was first-pitch strike to all three hitters.
“I was happy I was able to throw first-pitch strikes yesterday, and had to get that leadoff hitter out,” Ottavino said before Saturday’s game against the Angels. “I knew that going in, with Ohtani and Trout coming up, so I was pleased with it. I feel like I'm getting there. I haven't been pleased mostly with the way I’ve pitched this season, but I'm starting to do the fundamental things a little better. And if I do that, then I like my chances. And it was exciting last night to have that responsibility and to come through.”
Ottavino was at his low point on May 2 in Texas, when he couldn’t hold the lead in the eighth inning. He got just two outs that day, walking two and allowing three runs (two earned). At the time, his ERA was 5.40 ERA.
In his six appearances since that game, he has a 1.59 ERA while allowing one run.
For Ottavino, it has been a matter of getting back to the basics.
“I think I'm likely still below 50 percent on first-pitch strikes this season, so those are basics that I've known since I was a little kid,” said Ottavino. “And I'm 35 and still can't sometimes execute it the way I want to so. The key is first-pitch strikes, obviously getting the leadoff hitter out, basically making them hit my stuff, not nibbling too much. Fundamental stuff that I’ve been working hard each and every year to make my pitches better and better.”
With the benefit of hindsight, Ottavino thinks he might have been pressing a bit, which isn’t unusual for someone when they join a new team.
“I think it's about time to trust them and instead of trying to be perfect sometimes,” said Ottavino. “Maybe I came out of the gate trying to be a little too perfect. So just trying to play basic fundamental baseball now and get ahead, stay ahead and let my stuff take care of the rest.”
Barnes at ‘super high level’
For the Red Sox, it has been gratifying to see Barnes take his game to the highest level in his first full season as a closer.
It isn’t just that he is saving games. It’s the way he is carving up opponents in a near-surgical way. His latest display of dominance was needing just 11 pitches to strike out the side -- all swinging -- to end Friday’s 4-3 win.
In 19 innings, Barnes has three walks and 33 strikeouts. Opponents are hitting .097 against him.
“His stuff is there, it’s always been there, but I think now he seems to clearly have a really good understanding of how his pitches work together and where to go with what and when,” said Ottavino. “He’s executing at a super high level. I don’t want to compare it to anything in my career. I’ve had stretches where I’ve felt unhittable like that, but he’s doing it in the here and now right in front of us and it’s awesome to see. It just feels like the game is over when he comes in.”
What’s up with Verudgo?
In his last six games, Alex Verdugo, who turned 25 on Saturday, has only two hits in 24 at-bats, and took an 0-for-14 drought into the game. Over that span, his batting average has gone from .311 to .273.
“Little bit, I don’t [want] to say pull happy because he never tries to pull the ball, but it seems like he’s getting beat with fastballs inside, and changeups he’s rolling over,” said manager Alex Cora. “He’s been playing a lot, too. Tomorrow we’ll give him off and Monday [is a team off-day], and he’ll be ready for Tuesday. But I think it’s part of the grind.”
Arroyo could be a while
While the Red Sox still expect Kiké Hernández (strained right hamstring) to be activated on Tuesday, Christian Arroyo (left wrist contusion) will take a bit longer.
Arroyo, who got smoked on the wrist by two pitches in the last few weeks, tried to take batting practice on Friday and it didn’t go well.
“It didn't go great so he's not going to take batting practice today. He's still feeling it toward the end [of the swing] and you can tell it's kind of like he's babying it, whatever you want to call it, his swing through impact,” said Cora. “I don't think he will be ready for a rehab game yet. I don't think it's going to take that long, either. As of now, we have to reassess the plan and we’ll go from there.”
Whitlock to COVID-19 IL
For the second time this week, the Red Sox put a pitcher on the Covid-related injured list due to side effects from being vaccinated. For Saturday’s game, it was righty reliever Garrett Whitlock. Earlier this week, it was Nick Pivetta, who was off the roster for just one day and pitched well in his scheduled start on Friday. Colten Brewer was recalled from Triple-A Worcester to replace Whitlock on the roster.