O's Sarfate Feels the Pressure, and Likes It

By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 18, 2008

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., Feb. 17 -- Dennis Sarfate's first taste of major league pressure came last season, during his short stint as a reliever for the Houston Astros.

Blessed with an intimidating fastball but cursed by shaky control, he had spent nearly seven years in the Milwaukee Brewers organization, where he toiled exclusively in the minors except for an eight-game stay with the parent club in 2006.

But when Astros purchased his contract last season, it was something of a fresh start for Sarfate. Six of his eight appearances in Houston came after the seventh inning. And, with a newfound confidence, Sarfate responded by holding opponents to a .200 batting average. Most importantly, the onetime starting pitcher discovered that he was up for the challenge.

"They really put me in games where the game the game was on the line, pressure situations," said Sarfate, one of the prospects who came to the Baltimore Orioles in the Miguel Tejada trade. "It wasn't up by 10 or down by 10. I felt good pitching in the late innings, from the seventh on, it's exciting. You want to be in there."

Perhaps the Baltimore Orioles now can benefit.

During first days of spring training, Sarfate has emerged as a surprise, impressing the Orioles' field staff with his power on the mound. With Sarfate capable of throwing pitches in the mid-90s, Manager Dave Trembley likened the "heavy" feel of Sarfate's fastball to that of Detroit Tigers flamethrower Joel Zumaya.

"I didn't know much about Sarfate, but he's looked very well in his bullpen sessions. I certainly like his demeanor," Trembley said. "I like the way the ball comes out of his hand and he's all business."

Sarfate said he spent the offseason trying to develop pitches to complement his fastball, including a split-fingered version of the pitch. Most important, he tried to improve on the command issues that hampered him during his time with Milwaukee.

"It's all about location, too," Sarfate said. "You can throw 100 [miles per hour] down the middle, but it's going to get hit. Even with Houston, when I got a taste last year, I lived off my fastball, but I was working it in and out. That's what helped me out. There's more than just throwing the fastball as hard as you can. It's about making the pitch."

Even with spring training games still more than a week away, Sarfate has put himself on the radar for at least a late-inning reliever's role. But the closer's role -- which is open because Chris Ray is expected to need most of the season to recover from elbow ligament replacement surgery -- could be a possibility as well.

Outside of being determined to avoid the "by committee" approach that injuries forced the Orioles to use part of last season, nothing has been settled in regards to the closer's job.

Reliever George Sherrill, who came to Baltimore in the Erik Bedard trade, has the inside track on becoming the closer. Sherrill functioned primarily as a left-handed setup man with the Mariners. He and Trembley, meantime, have kept an open dialogue about the position. Reliever Greg Aquino, who closed out 16 of 19 save opportunities in Arizona during the 2004 season, also is a contender.

But in the past few days, Trembley has mentioned Sarfate as an outside candidate for the job.

"He could find himself as 'the guy' late in a game," Trembley said.

However, Sarfate, who has never made the Opening Day roster of a major league team, said he would settle simply for a spot in the bullpen. "I wouldn't even say that I'm competing for it," Sarfate said of the closer's role. "To me, Chris Ray is still the closer and he's going to be back. Sherrill has a couple of years in and had unbelievable repertoire. To me, if I can throw even the sixth inning, I'll be happy."

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