DiFelice appears to be lock to make roster

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McClatchy Tribune
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
— After toiling 11 years in the minors before finally getting his chance to pitch in the big leagues, Mark DiFelice isn’t about to start taking things for granted.

“I’ll believe I’ve made the team when I’m on the flight to San Francisco,” said DiFelice, referring to the Milwaukee Brewers’ opening series of the season.

DiFelice’s reluctance is understandable. When you have 263 minor-league games on your resume and only 15 appearances in the majors, this breaking-camp-with-the-team stuff is a bit difficult to grasp.

But, barring a move from outside the organization, the 32-year-old right-hander has claimed a spot in the Brewers’ bullpen. The roster has been trimmed to the seven-man relief corps, putting DiFelice on the doorstep of making his first opening day roster.

Until closer Trevor Hoffman was placed on the disabled list with a lingering oblique strain, DiFelice and Jorge Julio were in a battle for the final spot in the bullpen. Now, both appear to have made it.

Not that DiFelice isn’t deserving of his spot under any circumstances. In six exhibition outings, he has compiled a 4.72 earned run average, with 10 hits allowed in 13 1/3 innings and a marvelous walk/strikeout ratio of 1-to-15.

Toss out the one bad outing DiFelice had this spring—seven hits and six runs allowed in two innings against San Francisco on March 22 with the wind howling out—and his ERA drops to a sparkling 0.79 (one run in 11 1/3 innings).

DiFelice atoned for that first outing when he faced the Giants again Sunday and limited them to one hit over three innings. Randy Winn led off with a bunt hit and DiFelice retired the next nine hitters in order before exiting.

Looking back at that first outing against San Francisco, DiFelice realized he was a bit weary from an early spring workload.

“It got to the point where I was a little spent,” he said. “That (first) game against the Giants, it all caught up to me. But they gave me six days off, then I only threw three pitches (in facing one batter the next time out).”

Manager Ken Macha has been intrigued by DiFelice since early in camp because of one overriding factor: He just doesn’t walk hitters. In 1,247 2/3 innings in the minors, the Pennsylvania native walked 221 hitters, or 1.6 per nine innings, and logged 1,016 strikeouts.

The knock against DiFelice was that he couldn’t get out left-handed hitters. His bread-and-butter pitch, a “cut” fastball, was devilish for right-handed hitters but often broke into the wheelhouses of lefties.

To combat that problem, DiFelice has been throwing a changeup to left-handed hitters this spring and mixing in an occasional curve, a new pitch for him.

“(The curve) is going to be a good pitch for him,” Macha said. “Much like (Jeff) Suppan, getting that separation in speeds (from his fastball) is big. He’s done a very nice job with that.”

Keeping dream alive

Making a big-league club out of spring camp once was merely a dream for DiFelice. He had to pitch for Camden (N.J.) of the independent Atlantic League in 2006 merely to keep his career alive after being dumped by the Chicago Cubs, the third organization to release him.

DiFelice pitched that winter for Hermosillo in the Mexican League, hoping somebody would notice. The club’s pitching coach happened to be Stan Kyles, who also worked for the Brewers in that role at Class AAA Nashville.

Kyles recommended that the Brewers sign DiFelice to a minor-league contract, which they did a few weeks before spring training began in 2007.

“I came to camp and they liked how I threw the ball,” DiFelice said. “They said, ’We don’t have room in Triple-A. Would you go to Double-A?’

”I said, ’Sure.’ Coming out of independent ball, I just wanted an opportunity to play affiliated ball again.“

DiFelice pitched well for Class AA Huntsville (6-1, 1.62 ERA in 26 outings) and was promoted to Nashville, where he went 4-2 with a 3.10 ERA in 10 starts. That performance earned DiFelice his first invitation to big-league camp last spring.

DiFelice never got out of the starting gate, however. He had microfracture surgery on his right knee that offseason and sat out most of camp.

“I never really had a chance,” he said. “That was disappointing. It was my first big-league camp and I couldn’t pitch.”

Reporting back to Nashville, DiFelice pitched well enough to finally get a promotion to the big leagues in mid-May. At 31 years 63 days, he became the third-oldest player in franchise history to make his major-league debut.

Rough start

The bloom came off the rose immediately when DiFelice was roughed up by Boston in his first outing, surrendering five hits and three runs in one inning at Fenway Park, including a two-run homer by David Ortiz.

Welcome to the big leagues.

“That was kind of rough, after waiting 11 years,” DiFelice said. “It got better after that.”

Indeed, it did. In two stints with the Brewers, DiFelice acquitted himself well, going 1-0 with a 2.84 ERA in 15 relief outings, holding opponents to a .230 batting average.

“I remember Mike Maddux saying, ‘The one thing you should take from this season is you can pitch in the big leagues. You belong up here,’” DiFelice recalled, referring to the Brewers’ former pitching coach.

“That was the big question mark throughout my career: ‘Can you pitch in the big leagues?’ I was, like, ‘Well, put me there and see for yourself.’ I give credit to (general manager) Doug Melvin and the Brewers. They gave me a chance when no one else would.”

DiFelice’s strong spring included an impressive outing for Italy in the World Baseball Classic. Facing a tough Venezuela lineup, he pitched four shutout innings, proving he could compete on a big stage.

Now, DiFelice is close to suiting up for his first season opener in the majors. The excitement and anticipation are churning inside but he’s determined not to assume anything until officially informed that he has made the club.

“I’m not going to put that in my head just yet,” he said. “After 11 years in the minor leagues, I’ve seen it all. When I’m on that flight, then I’ll know.”

Last updated: 10:17 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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