Cut fastball prolongs DiFelice's career

Cut fastball prolongs DiFelice's career

MILWAUKEE -- It's amazing what one pitch can do for a pitcher.

For some, it's a 100-mile-per-hour fastball. For others, it's a wicked slider or knee-buckling curve that sets them apart.

For Mark DiFelice, it's a cut fastball; a pitch that got him noticed and changed his life, just as he was contemplating giving up on his dream of pitching in the Major Leagues.

The past two seasons, DiFelice has been a key member of the Brewers bullpen. In 2008, he posted a 2.84 ERA in 15 games, as the Brewers clinched the National League Wild Card. This season, he's 4-1 with a 2.81 ERA in 45 appearances. But in 2006 and part of 2005, he was working a regular job during the day and toiling in the independent Atlantic League by night.

"I was working during the day ... from about 8 to 2 o'clock and then I'd go and play baseball," DiFelice said. "For about a year and a half I did that. And if I didn't get picked up by the Brewers, I would have retired after the 2006 season."

It would have been hard to fault DiFelice for thinking about calling it quits. A 15th-round Draft pick by the Colorado Rockies in 1998 out of Western Carolina, DiFelice came to professional baseball after being named the Southern Conference Pitcher of the Year in 1998. In the Rockies' Minor League system, DiFelice was a starter, going 38-35 with a 3.67 ERA -- making it to Triple-A in 2001 -- but missed most of the 2002 season recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, and later a right elbow strain.

The Rockies released him in May 2004, but he was quickly signed by Baltimore and spent the 2004 season with Triple-A Ottawa. He left after one season, then signed with Washington, but a rocky start in 2005 with the Nationals' Triple-A affiliate led to his release, and he finished 2005 with the Somerset Patriots of the independent Atlantic League.

"I was always one of those guys who wondered, 'Why isn't it me?'" DiFelice said of his up-and-down career. "I wasn't really pointing the finger, but I always thought I had good enough stuff to get to the big leagues. Apparently, I guess some scouts and managers didn't think so. ... I thought to myself, 'OK, I need to get big league hitters out. What do I need to do?'"

DiFelice spent the next winter playing in the Mexican Pacific League trying to answer that question. After his 2002 shoulder surgery, DiFelice said his velocity dropped from the low-90s to mid-to-upper 80s. Because of that, he knew he needed a change.

That change was adding a cut fastball.

"I started working on this pitch and everybody started loving it and I was having success with it," DiFelice said. "I think if I stayed on the same path, as far as how I was pitching, I probably wouldn't have made it. I think I needed the change. It was definitely a turning point in my career."

In Mexico, DiFelice worked on his cut fastball. The new pitch got him noticed -- earning him an invitation to Spring Training with the Cubs -- but he was once again released and went back to independent ball.

With the Camden Riversharks, DiFelice dazzled that season, going 12-9 with a 3.19 ERA and leading the Atlantic League in complete games, shutouts and strikeouts.

"He pitched really well," then-Riversharks pitching coach Steve Foucault said. "He could work both sides of the plate with that cut fastball and mix in some regular fastballs. He was just a hard worker and a pleasure to work with."

DiFelice went back to Mexico after the season and continued to hone his new pitch in hopes of getting one more shot. The Minor League veteran knew he was nearing the end of the road, so with that in mind he threw cut fastball after cut fastball, mowing down batters, but drawing concern from his pitching coach, current Brewers bullpen coach Stan Kyles.

"I used to get on him about throwing too many cutters," Kyles said. "I had concern that too many cutters were going to hurt his arm. But he's always had a plan, and he told me, 'Hey, this is my last shot, and if I'm going down, I'm going down with my best pitch.'"

Kyles joked that ignoring his advice was the best decision DiFelice ever made.

"And that's OK, because the thing I always tell the guys is, 'Know thyself,'" Kyles said. "He knew the kind of pitcher he wanted to be."

Kyles eventually recommended DiFelice and his cut fastball to the Brewers, who signed him in January 2007. Kyles originally thought of DiFelice as a guy who could help the organization's pitching depth, but a stellar 2007 season -- 10-3 with a 2.31 ERA between Double-A Huntsville and Triple-A Nashville -- led to a quick start in 2008.

He was eventually called up on May 15, 2008, making his Major League debut on May 18 -- 10 years after he was drafted.

Now, after years of setbacks and nearly giving up on his dream, the 32-year-old reliever has a secure role with the Milwaukee bullpen, along with a potentially bright future.

"It's just good to hear stories like that about guys who really stick it out and put their neck on the line to hang around. They have to do things a lot of guys wouldn't do," Foucault said. "It's good to see people like him stick it out. And hell, if he continues to build on what he's been doing, he might have a pretty nice payday at the end of the season."

Cash Kruth is an associate reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.