Hiroshima Carp closer Dennis Sarfate has had a lot of success in his first year of Japanese baseball. His 22 saves through July 20 were tops in the Central League, and he has prospered on a club that is languishing in fifth place, which means the save opportunities are not exactly coming fast and furious for the Carp.
But, like many a fisherman might tell you, it's usually the ones that get away that stay with you the longest.
"Those two blown saves," Sarfate said recently before a game at Tokyo Dome, "I still have dreams about those two pitches I threw. Two bad pitches and they just happened to be in one-run games and I gave up solo homers. I try to forget about them, but those are kind of sticking with me a little bit."
Lest you get the idea that Sarfate (rhymes with "karate") dwells on the negative, he finishes off that thought on a more upbeat note.
"As far as my success, I love it," he adds. "I want to win. If I get a save that means we win, so for me that's the best of both worlds."
Sarfate, a 30-year-old right-hander from New York, in fact is one of the more positive people you will meet in Japanese baseball, especially among the foreign contingent. Sarfate credits a good attitude for his early success here.
"Just adapt to the culture," he says. "I have fun here, I go out, I explore the cities that we go to. Me and (teammate Bryan) Bullington, we go out and eat different meals, stuff like that. It's one of those things where you've just got to adapt ... to the way things are done here. The guys who make the adjustment quick and easy have more success. Bullington's throwing the ball well and I think he and I are in the same boat--we just take everything one day at a time and enjoy it."
Both men have been so successful in their first seasons here that they will be representing Hiroshima in the three-game All-Star series from July 22-24.
Sarfate sports a 1.72 ERA to go along with his 22 saves. He has struck out 54 and walked just seven in 36-and-two-thirds innings of work.
Starter Bullington, meanwhile, has nine wins through July 20, one behind CL-leader Tetsuya Utsumi of the Yomiuri Giants, and boasts an ERA of 2.06. The gangly right-hander, a former first overall pick in the 2002 MLB draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates, has struck out 72 hitters in 104-and-two-thirds innings this year.
Sarfate said he knew a bit about Japanese baseball before coming over, mostly from trading stories with former Yomiuri pitcher Koji Uehara when both were with the Baltimore Orioles in 2009. He also picked the brains of former NPB pitchers Jeff Williams and Jeremy Powell, both friends from their days with MLB organizations.
Sarfate said he has been very impressed with the Japanese pitchers he has seen here so far, calling them "relentless."
"I've seen (Masahiro) Tanaka, (Yu) Darvish--those guys are filthy--and those guys are ready to go to the States, in my opinion," Sarfate says. "And some of these other guys, like lefty (Tsuyoshi) Wada with Softbank, they know how to pitch. They're relentless, they'll throw stuff that you wouldn't see (back home), like 0-0 curveballs on the first pitch of the game. You just don't see that. I saw (Carp ace) Kenta Maeda throw a 3-0 slider one day and that would never happen in the States. The pitchers are relentless, they're not giving in to any hitters. They'd rather walk the batter than give up a hit."
Sarfate said he had no idea he'd be closing games for the Carp this year. He was under the impression he'd be used in middle relief or possibly as a starter. About halfway through spring camp, however, he realized he was usually pitching the ninth inning. The writing was on the proverbial wall.
"Kenny (Carp manager Ken Nomura) was telling me be comfortable in that role, get used to it," he recalls.
Sarfate says it's an honor to represent Hiroshima in the All-Star games. One thing he's looking forward to is seeing some of the Japanese players relax a little and enjoy themselves.
"I think a lot of these guys take it (baseball) as a job and there's not too many times you can see them having fun," he says. "So, hopefully, lighten the load there and it will be a good time for them."
Sarfate is still a relative newcomer to Japan, but when asked what advice he'd give to guys thinking of coming over, he does not hesitate.
"I like it (here) because I'm adapting well to the culture, I think, and I get along with my teammates," he says. "I think you've just got to be easygoing, you can't come in here arrogantly. It's a different game, it's all about respect, and I respect that."