Bullpen job is Sarfate's to lose

Bullpen job is Sarfate's to lose

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Orioles have only played five exhibition games, but they're already issuing votes of confidence to players they think will make a difference. Baltimore manager Dave Trembley cut a corner with untested reliever Dennis Sarfate on Tuesday, when he said he's earmarking a spot in his bullpen for him.

"He'll have to pitch his way off the club. I think that will be safe to say," said Trembley, echoing a recent conversation with Sarfate. "We're going to give him every opportunity to make the club. It's up to him whether he does or not."

Sarfate, who had only made two spring appearances before that announcement, expressed relief toward that sentiment. The hard-throwing right-hander had found himself trying to prove himself on every pitch, and Trembley's words gave him something he's never yet had in his brief career: job security. Now, he just needs to figure out how to keep it.

"I put so much pressure on myself to be better and to show off what I've got," he said. "I'm new to the organization and I'm trying to make a good impression. He came up to me and told me that it's not an audition and to just relax. That took a weight off my shoulders and gave me the confidence to work on some things and get prepared for a long season."

Sarfate, a veteran of just 15 big league games, has been through three organizations in the last 12 months. He started last season with a Milwaukee affiliate, Triple-A Nashville, and moved to Houston on a late-season waiver claim. After experiencing success with the Astros, Sarfate was a secondary piece in this winter's trade for Miguel Tejada.

Most of the rookie's Minor League career was spent as a starter, but he flashed signs of dominance as a reliever in 2007. Sarfate averaged nearly 10 strikeouts per nine innings with Nashville, but he also averaged nearly seven walks. That all got ironed out in seven appearances with Houston, where he struck out 14 batters and delivered a 1.08 ERA.

The velocity has always been there, but Sarfate knows that his control will make or break him. He credited two people in particular -- Nashville pitching coach Stan Kyles and former big leaguer Justin Thompson -- for helping him realize that he doesn't have to throw 100 mph on every pitch to be successful against the world's best hitters.

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"I think it's just finally growing up and maturing and seeing how older guys go about their business," he said on Tuesday. "Justin Thompson came to Nashville in 2006 and told me, 'Listen, you can throw as hard as you want. It's about the control. Stop worrying about walking guys. Once you stop worrying about walking guys, you're going to step it up to a new level.'

"My old pitching coach, Stan Kyles, has been working with me in winter ball. He said, 'Your stuff's not going to change. Just take your foot off the pedal and stop trying to be max effort all the time.'"

Pitching coach Rick Kranitz has preached a similar message this spring in Fort Lauderdale, and he's told his pitchers that he's not particularly interested in radar-gun readings. He judges his pitchers by the reactions hitters give to their pitches, and he said that he saw a big difference between Sarfate's first two appearances this spring.

"I think in the first game, he was trying to do too much and muscling everything," said Kranitz, who's also in his first season with the Orioles. "[On Monday], he was a lot more relaxed. When he pitches at 80 percent effort, he gets 100 percent results. Sometimes when he goes at 100 percent full go, he overthrows."

Sarfate said he's still trying to find all the answers, but he thinks he's found something that works for him. The 26-year-old recently started working with a sports psychologist that turned him on to visualization and breathing exercises. Sarfate was skeptical at first, but he began to believe after seeing what the twin devices could do for him.

"The first thing he did was take me to the golf course," he said. "I took my 7-iron and he let me hit it, and I did my normal slice. The next time he said, 'OK, visualize the ball going right to that flag.' The next shot was right on the money, and I thought that was amazing. I incorporated it into my pitching, and now I watch a lot of video.

"On the bus ride over yesterday, I saw three hitters in my head and went through how I was going to pitch to them. It's a big mental thing. This game has a lot going on mentally, and you've got to give yourself the advantage."

Now that he's been granted his vote of confidence, Sarfate can visualize himself at Camden Yards without feeling presumptuous. He knows how precious that assignment can be and he also knows how hard he's worked to get there. For six years, Sarfate worked through the Brewers' depth chart in the hope of earning a full-time job.

Sarfate said his frustration reached its peak in 2006, when he pitched 10 innings in Spring Training and logged a 0.90 ERA. He still earned the ticket back to Nashville, though, and went 10-7 in his final season as a starter. Sarfate made his big league debut during the '06 season as a reliever and is ready to wave goodbye to the Minor Leagues for good.

"He probably understands better than a lot of guys the opportunity he has," said Trembley, who managed in the Minors for 20 years. "He's waited a long time. I can relate to that. He just needs to relax somewhat and hopefully he'll be OK."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.