NEW YORK — The Harlem storefront where Adam Ottavino revived his career two years ago isn’t going to be vacant much longer.
“They’re turning it into something,” Ottavino said.
What exactly, Ottavino wasn’t sure — although he did mention the possibility of a Chipotle or an underground supermarket.
Something like that.
Either way, Ottavino’s career was at a crossroads following an awful 2017 season with the Colorado Rockies when he converted the empty space into a pitching lab — complete with a mound, workout area and high-speed cameras. From there, he added a cutter to his pitch repertoire and refined his slider.
The results were bountiful: A bounceback 2018 campaign with Colorado, followed by a massive payday from the New York Yankees in free agency to the tune of three years, $27 million.
"I feel like I've been training for this for forever."— New York Yankees (@Yankees) March 13, 2019
Adam Ottavino is ready for the spotlight. pic.twitter.com/TUwMvEO4fJ
These days, Ottavino regularly combines with Tommy Kahnle, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman to form arguably the best bullpen in all of baseball. The quartet has a cumulative 2.41 ERA to go along with 314 strikeouts in 246 innings.
The Yankees finished 24-1 during the regular season when Ottavino, Kahnle, Britton and Chapman appeared in the same game. The only loss came in mop-up duty during Sunday’s meaningless season finale in Texas. Chapman went 37-for-42 in save opportunities.
The Bronx Bombers face the Minnesota Twins in the American League Division Series, which is set to begin Friday night with Game 1 at Yankee Stadium. And manager Aaron Boone will have plenty of fresh, powerful weapons at his disposal in relief.
“This is one of the better bullpens that I’ve been a part of in my career,” Kahnle told Yahoo Sports. “So it’s been exciting to pitch alongside each one of them. You don’t really get a chance to be part of a bullpen this kind of loaded all the time. I’m very appreciative over the last couple years to be part of this bullpen, so it’s been fun.”
Each member of the powerful foursome possesses his own unique personality — as well as his own unique out pitch.
Chapman’s fastball (.239 batting average against) remains electric. So does Britton’s sinker (.201).
Ottavino’s slider is devastating (.154). The same can be said for Kahnle’s changeup (.136).
“Those guys have crazy movement,” Chapman said. “And those pitches are their weapons, some of the best pitches in baseball.”
But they all have the same goal in common: To help the Yankees win the World Series.
And — given all the questions surrounding the starting rotation with James Paxton, Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka either currently banged up or inconsistent — they’re going to be relied upon to help the team get to the top of the mountain.
“We all pull for each other, and we all want to win,” Ottavino told Yahoo Sports. “Sometimes other stuff can get in the way on other teams. But it seems like we all really like each other, and that seems like a small thing but it’s really a big thing.”
Ottavino explained what he meant by that in much greater depth.
“I just think with the incentives in baseball, what motivates you sometimes isn’t other people doing well,” Ottavino said. “A lot of times you kind of have to be selfish in this game. Because if you want to stick around, you need to elevate your status in the bullpen and try to make more money in arbitration or something like that, and that can lead to some weird, strange dynamics — even if people get along. Some of that, ‘I want to be ahead of that other guy on the totem pole,’ that type of stuff.
“The dynamic of this team isn’t like that. And I don’t think that’s 100 percent normal. We’ve gotten to the point now where we know the most important thing is winning 11 games in October. So it’s about that, and everybody is trying to make sure they help each other out to get to that point.”
KEEPING IT LIGHT OVER A 162-GAME MARATHON
After the Yankees captured their first AL East title since 2012 on Sept. 19, no one soaked up the celebration quite like Kahnle.
“He brings a lot of passion and his own brand of shenanigans, but he really cares about the team,” Ottavino said of Kahnle, who he also played with in Colorado.
At one point, Kahnle even treated the covered floor of the clubhouse like a Slip-N’-Slide, going full extension and gliding through the pool of alcohol that had formed.
“I like to keep everyone calm and relaxed throughout the day,” Kahnle said. “There are times when you need to lock it in, and there are times when you need to take a break from it, and I feel like I do a good job of that for the guys.”
If you’re wondering where his football allegiances lie, Kahnle’s locker features nearly 30 different Philadelphia Eagles jerseys, as well as a Notre Dame football helmet.
“Mostly, we just like to pick on Tommy,” Britton said. “He’s a diehard Eagles fan, so it’s easy to make fun of him.”
He’s also a massive wrestling fan.
“It’s entertaining,” Kahnle said. “And the stuff they do in the ring is just, ‘Wow.’ It’s hard. And I mean just their personalities is what got me as a kid because it’s funny how they can act, and I’ve always loved that part, too.”
Of course, Kahnle can also be prone to blow-ups, as evidenced when he slammed his hand into a plastic sunflower seeds bin in the dugout after being taken out of a game in mid-September. Fortunately for himself and the team, he wasn’t hurt.
“That’s the unfortunate side,” Kahnle said. “I try not to hit things, but I’ve always been competitive and emotional about how I do things. I just feel sometimes I get frustration out in the wrong way, so I need to do a better job of that — that way I don’t get hurt or anything stupid.”
Asked to describe his mates in the bullpen, Kahnle replied: “When I first got here, Chad [Green] didn’t say anything to anyone. ‘Otto’ I’ve known for a long time [from our Colorado days]. He’s relaxed, laid back, and he doesn’t say much. Britton, I’ve been with him for a year-and-a-half and he’s a riot. I like him. He gives you some energy once-in-a-while.”
“I think it’s a good mix,” Britton said. “You always have one end of the [personality] spectrum to the other, and that’s what makes it work. But this one’s on another level when it comes to talent.”
STARTED FROM THE BOTTOM NOW WE’RE HERE
Ask Ottavino, 33, about his low point playing professional baseball and he’ll tell you there isn’t just one. There’s three.
First, he posted a 5.23 ERA with Double-A Springfield in 2008. Two years later, he compiled an 8.46 ERA in his first five career big-league outings with St. Louis. And finally, there was his 2017 season in Colorado, when he put up a 5.06 ERA in 63 appearances.
“For me, I’ve hit rock bottom three different times,” said Ottavino, who made headlines during the offseason when he said he’d strike out Babe Ruth every time he faced him.
Coaches wanted him to change his cross-body delivery — the one he’d developed by accident as a kid — which gives him movement and deception.
“I struggled mightily trying to conform (to a cookie-cutter delivery), but I think over time I realized that type of deception kind of made me unique,” Ottavino said. “So it was just about trying to lean back into that because even though it’s a tough delivery to perfect, it’s worth the effort because it’s definitely a help to me out there, I think.”
Kahnle was demoted to the minors during a dismal, injury-riddled 2018. This season, his resurgence has been essential given that Dellin Betances threw only eight pitches due to injury.
“It was tough. It was a grind. I was mentally out of it. My shoulder didn’t feel right,” Kahnle said.”It was probably the toughest year of my career. I just wanted to come back and prove that it was a fluke.”
Green was demoted to the minors for a portion of 2019 before rediscovering his stuff. Britton was a failed starter who emerged as arguably the best reliever in the majors in 2016 before suffering what he thought was a career-ending Achilles tear the following year. Since then, he adjusted well to his new role as setup man instead of closer.
And Chapman blew the save in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series before the Cubs picked him up and ended their 108-year championship drought.
“I think we all have gone through some adversity in our career and hit a low point,” Kahnle said. “But we all feed off that and use that as motivation to keep propelling ourselves to greater heights and keep trying to get better everyday, to improve on something.”
Often, they use one another as sounding boards in difficult moments, because they’ve all had their own personal Harlem storefront moment.
“When you’re playing the role that all of us are in the bullpen — and we’ve all done it for awhile — you experience the lowest of lows where you’re the guy that loses the game for the team,” Ottavino said. “And I think the process of that, learning to deal with that, is kind of the biggest thing in our job — how to move forward everyday and be able to put up a good effort, 60, 70, 80 times a year.
“I think all of us at some point have hit rock bottom in the game and have gone back up and I think you just kind of realize that the failures you have are the reason for your successes later. Nobody is immune to it. But it’s those conversations you have with one another because you need to control your mind at a high level.”
All of it has led them to New York, to being the backbone of a team that has aspirations of capturing its 28th World Series title.
“There are a lot of good bullpens throughout baseball,” Chapman said. “But in my opinion this is the best one. And the reason why is because of the quality of arms we have — that we can use at any moment — is the best.”
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