When you play for a Hall of Fame manager, any praise you receive has to sink in pretty well. When you ask Lehigh Valley IronPigs manager Ryne Sandberg about Justin De Fratus, the praise is simple. "He's the man," said Sandberg after De Fratus gave him two innings in relief to pick up the win in game two of the International League Semifinals. "What I've been doing seems to be working and if someone the caliber of Ryne Sandberg says 'he's the man', that's a good feeling."
For De Fratus, the praise is humbly received. "That's pretty cool," said De Fratus when told of Sandberg's opinion. "I just keep going in there and doing what I can and lately, it's been working."
De Fratus' season didn't start out on the right foot. He was hit for three earned runs in his first inning of work with Reading, but quickly got things turned around and rattled off a streak where he allowed just one earned run over 13 1/3 innings of work (0.65 ERA) and converted three out of four save opportunities. Later in the season, he would rattle off a streak of ten scoreless innings and by the middle of June, would have converted eight-of-nine save opportunities and post a 4-0 record with a 2.10 ERA in 23 games with the R-Phils. From there, it was on to his next challenge at Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
Again, there was a learning curve and this one was longer than what he experienced with Reading. De Fratus allowed runs in his first three outings and his first four out of five outings on the season and had a 7.36 ERA. Along the way though, De Fratus sought out the advice of some teammates and coaches and got things turned around before too long. "It starts with understanding what I can do with my God given ability. Before, at Reading, I could just get by with my stuff," remembered De Fratus. "Then, it got to the point where people caught up to me and I needed to make a change if I wanted to stay aggressive in this game."
De Fratus sought out the advice of his Lehigh Valley battery mate Erik Kratz and IronPigs pitching coach Rod Nichols for advice. Perhaps the most help came from Les Walrond, who has pitched for both Reading and Lehigh Valley this season. De Fratus saw how effective Walrond was with his breaking pitches and asked for advice from the minor league veteran. "I was trying to figure out why guys weren't swinging at my breaking ball," said De Fratus. "I thought what I had was a good breaking ball, but they said 'hey, you've got to show you can throw it for a strike." Walrond especially emphasized that to the 23 year-old and De Fratus took it to heart.
From there, De Fratus set out to work more on the mental aspect of his game than anything mechanical. "It wasn't anything to do with ability, it was all to do with understanding. Now, I understand what I have to do to get hitters out," said De Fratus.
For the IronPigs, the bullpen has been a strength all season long. During the regular season, IronPigs relievers accumulated 46 saves and posted a combined 2.82 ERA. Michael Schwimer was a big part of that success and had notched 10 of the team's saves, but left to join the big league club in mid-August and would pitch just one more game with Lehigh Valley the rest of the season. That loss left a definite void and De Fratus was able to step in and fill that spot.
De Fratus got a look with the Phillies this past spring, but it was really more of just a glance. He was not going to make the club out of spring training, but they were interested to see how he would carry himself and what he might be able to do in a few games. With the big league club, De Fratus threw four innings and posted a 9.00 ERA, but he at least got a look. Next spring, there will be a better chance for him to battle for a spot with the club, but it wouldn't be surprising if he would wind up back at Lehigh Valley, at least for part of the season. However, if he looks to pitchers like Schwimer and Michael Stutes, who were in much the same spot last spring that he'll be in next spring, he'll see that there is a good reason to be patient. Both Schwimer and Stutes are now pitching in Philly, with Stutes playing a major role in the bullpen. De Fratus has the ability to take that same sort of path and now, he has the mental ability to get the job done as well.