DiFelice knew what the Mets were asking of him; he'd be their Crash Davis, helping groom first-round draft pick Mike Pelfrey for a first taste of the big leagues that would come within a month's time.
But he wasn't sure who this Pelfrey kid was, or if he'd be anything like the immature, bonus-baby, flame-throwing character Tim Robbins immortalized on film.
As DiFelice soon learned, there were to be no worries.
Pelfrey turned out to be just about as far away from Nuke LaLoosh as you can get, and as Pelfrey made his major league debut on July 8 against the Florida Marlins, DiFelice found himself sneaking off to a visiting clubhouse television in Trenton, N.J., cheering as though a younger brother had nervously found his way onto the Shea Stadium mound.
A 6-foot-7 right-hander from Wichita State, Pelfrey is soft-spoken with a sneaky sense of humor, his demeanor no more in need of refinement than the high-90's fastball he used to achieve a 2-1 record in his first four starts for the Mets.
"Great kid," DiFelice said. "When I got there, I spent a couple of days and tried to stay away, just to see what kind of person I'd be dealing with. Guys get a lot of money, and you don't know [how they'll act]. But he has a real nice humbleness about him that impressed me, and he's willing to listen.
"I'm sure he's going to get a ton of advice in his career, but he was a joy. I think he put his trust in me – he didn't know me, but I've got a little bit of experience. We had a real good working relationship and I really appreciated the way he responded to some of the things I tried to show him."
DiFelice's name should be familiar to Mets fans who ardently followed the 2005 campaign, although his first stay with New York lasted just 17 at-bats.
Originally a product of the St. Louis Cardinals farm system, the well-traveled DiFelice has logged time in 11 big league seasons with the Cardinals, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Arizona Diamondbacks, Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers, Chicago Cubs and the Mets.
Over his 15 years as a professional, DiFelice laughs that he's "seen an awful lot of baseball," which Pelfrey said shone through as his new batterymate tackled the task of pointing this Double-A hurler on the path to facing the National League's top lineups.
Standing in front of his locker at Shea Stadium in late July and grinning about the fact that the clubhouse staff had come around to issuing his own nameplate, Pelfrey offered credit for his quick rise back in DiFelice's direction.
"One of the biggest things in Double-A was when we got Mike DiFelice as a catcher," Pelfrey said. "He came in and kind of opened my eyes to mix in my breaking ball more and use my change-up more.
"It's important just having that kind of veteran guy there, who knows what it takes and has been there, and is able to talk to you and tell you what you need to work on."
DiFelice said one of his main topics of conversation with Pelfrey concerned mental aspects of pitching and taking control of the opposition, more than individual pitch selection.
"I'm not a mechanic, I'm a catcher," DiFelice said.
Rather than diagramming how Pelfrey should execute and follow through when utilizing his change-up and curveball – tasks better suited for a pitching coach – DiFelice instead relayed some preparation tips gleaned from the parade of hurlers he has guided over the years.
It is the 15 minutes leading up to first pitch, DiFelice told Pelfrey, that can prove to be the difference between a win and a loss.
"What are you going to do there? How are you going to prepare?" DiFelice said. "[We talked about] things I've seen over the years watching these professional pitchers, the routines they have and those 15 minutes before the game. They get locked in to go and compete, and I'm a big believer in tempo and rhythm."
The results proved apparent. With DiFelice behind the plate, Pelfrey obliterated a seven-game winless string that dated back to late April. Over the course of five starts from June 8-July 1, Pelfrey went 4-1 with a 1.96 ERA, striking out 37 Eastern League batters in 32 innings.
"I went through that little struggling period, and Mike took me aside and told me to mix in my breaking balls and change-ups a little bit more," Pelfrey said. "That's when things started to get a little bit better.
"He showed me how to watch the hitters' reactions and how to look for certain things we could take advantage of. He opened my eyes to a lot of things. Mike would tell me, 'You're not pitching for Double-A. You're pitching for the big leagues.'"
Once summoned to New York, Pelfrey and Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson deemed the right-hander's fastball major league-ready through a four-start audition that included two outings against Florida, one on the road against the Cincinnati Reds and one against Houston Astros.
It was – as had been the case at Double-A – Pelfrey's secondary pitches that still needed refinement, as Pelfrey was sent to Triple-A for further seasoning.
"I need to be more consistent and be able to throw them for strikes through the zone," Pelfrey said. "You watch every guy on this staff, and they seem to be able to throw a strike at any time. I need to be there."
Even though he finished his first big league stay on a moderately sour note, allowing four runs and seven hits in a six-inning effort on Aug. 1 at Florida, Pelfrey offered no regrets from the three-plus weeks he spent in the majors.
"I really just thought [that] I was going to go up there and put it all out on the line," Pelfrey said. "I was going to say, 'Here, this is what I've got.'
"I tried to do my best, and whatever was going to happen was going to happen. I feel good and I feel like I've continued to get better. I [was] able to watch some Hall of Famers here and it's a good chance to learn some things."
Pelfrey pointed out the cornucopia of pitches that Tom Glavine can utilize when behind in the count, keeping a batter off balance even though the odds are running against the defense. That's not an option Pelfrey currently possesses, and it's one he'd certainly like before he finds his way back to Shea.
"[Glavine is] different than me, because when I get behind, I've got to throw my fastball," Pelfrey said. "I wouldn't say I have to give in, but it's almost like the hitters know what's coming."
DiFelice expresses confidence that Pelfrey will achieve his off-speed goals at Norfolk. Though he notes, on some nights, Pelfrey may be able to use little more than a fastball and still steam through a major league lineup.
"He definitely has the potential to be the type of pitcher who can dominate a game," DiFelice said. "He can go into the late innings, so we talked about the fifth and sixth innings. That's the heart of the game right there, and for a starting pitcher, that's where you want to go run it out to another level."
It had been DiFelice's assignment to join the Norfolk Tides in order to continue guiding Pelfrey on that path, but as of press time, DiFelice had taken a detour to New York, joining the Mets when catcher Ramon Castro suffered an oblique injury and missed several games.
Still, DiFelice's read on Pelfrey's situation was that the former Shockers ace could be stepping into a role as a major league impact pitcher before very long.
"I think he's right there," DiFelice said. "Obviously, you want to be able to bring all your pitches to the table. But he has the ability where he might not need all those pitches on a daily basis."
|Did You Know?: Mike Pelfrey is just the third pitcher in franchise history to win both of his first two starts for the Mets. Dick Selma (1965) and Gary Gentry (1969) are the others.|
Reprinted from the October 2006 issue of Inside Pitch Magazine. For a subscription to Inside Pitch, call 888-501-5752 or click on www.insidepitchmagazine.com.