Dennis Sarfate is fit, but at a listed weight of 102 kg, he isn’t exactly light. So it was with some apprehension that he allowed his Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks teammates to toss him in the air after the team won the 2017 Pacific League pennant on Saturday afternoon at MetLife Dome in Saitama.
“I was a little scared,” he said once safely back on his own two feet. “I weigh a lot. I didn’t think they were going to be able to get me up in the air. We’ve got some strong guys on our team I guess.”
Sarfate, 36, said it was a first-time experience. Which fits perfectly with the firsts he’s achieved on the field while leaving a litany of milestones and records in his wake.
When he reached 178 career NPB saves earlier this year, he passed Marc Kroon for the most by a foreign player. Then he became the first foreign player, and sixth overall, to reach 200. His 47th save of 2017 broke the single-season record shared by Hitoki Iwase and Kyuji Fujikawa. A few games after that, he became the first NPB pitcher to reach 50 in one season.
“It’s been crazy this year,” Sarfate said. “You have all these things coming, and they kind of just come up out of nowhere. It overcomes you a little bit. It’s like when you just finish something, everyone’s talking about the next thing. It can get overwhelming. You have to hold your emotions in check.”
Last season, Sarfate had 43 saves and a 1.88 ERA in 62⅓ innings. He had a great year, but it didn’t sit well with him that it came with seven losses. Sarfate felt he’d let his teammates down. So he came back in 2017 with a vengeance, reasserting himself as the best closer in Japan.
In addition to a record 51 saves, Sarfate entered Monday with a 1.14 ERA and 99 strikeouts in 63 innings. Sarfate’s 14.1 strikeout rate, 4.4 walk rate and 0.70 walks plus hits per innings pitched were tops among pitchers with at least two saves. Only Yuki Matsui’s 0.36 ERA (in 49⅔ innings) was lower, and only Rafael Dolis was within 20 strikeouts.
“He’s really great,” Hawks reliever and former major leaguer Ryota Igarashi said. “He’s of course the No. 1 closer among the 12 teams. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an amazing closer until now. From his results, and also the kind of person he is, he’s really perfect.”
Sarfate says a lot of it is due to being in the perfect situation.
“I have lifelong friends on this team,” he said. “The bullpen especially, and the starters, we go to dinner a lot. We’re constantly joking in the pen, in the clubhouse, on the road. It’s just a really good team. They know they’re talented, they know what they have to do. We just gotta play. The talent level on this team, obviously we’re the best in Japan. There’s not another team that can compare talent level with this team.
“I honestly believe that. I’m not just speaking because I play for this team. You look from the outside in, we’re as deep as any team. The (Hiroshima) Carp are a great team, but I still say with the guys that we have with experience . . . I think over time, the Carp are going to be right up there with us as far as talent. The last two years, they’ve been tough too.”
He’s also quick to praise the pitchers in front of him.
“I know, even with a three-run lead, that maybe I’m able to get a day off. Because I know they’ll hold it and we can score another one in the seventh or eighth,” Sarfate said. “I couldn’t go do my job without what they’ve done in the bullpen. (Yuito) Mori, (Sho) Iwasaki, (Livan) Moinelo, (Shinya) Kayama, (Shuta) Ishikawa, all the guys who have contributed all year, I wouldn’t be where I am right now without them.”
Sarfate, who had 92 MLB appearances with the Brewers, Astros and Orioles, joined SoftBank in 2014 after two seasons with the Carp and one with the Seibu Lions. He had good seasons at both stops, but everything came together in Fukuoka.
“My first year with Hiroshima, it was a good year and then I got hurt,” he said. “Then I think in that second year, getting hurt and then my wife got sick, it just kind of piled up. I lost confidence a little bit, I know the team lost confidence in me, even when I was 9-for-9 in saves.
“Once they released me at the end of that year, when I went home, I realized if I got another chance, I had to do better. I did at Seibu. I wasn’t where I was, I was probably 80 percent body-wise, I was still weak from the surgery. When I got here (to Fukuoka), I felt strong again and I said, ‘OK let’s go.’ “
Sarfate has thrown at least 62 innings in each of his four years in Fukuoka and has had at least 40 saves in each of the last three. His 172 saves with the Hawks alone would be good enough for 10th on the NPB career list.
“He has such a strong body,” Igarashi said. “He trains regularly and he really knows how to get the most out of his body and stay in good condition.”
Supremely confident in both himself and the Hawks, Sarfate is ready to face any challenge the postseason brings. Including heading back to where it all started for a date with Hiroshima should both teams reach the Japan Series.
“I think it would be awesome,” he said of the possibility. “It’s fun to play those guys. I love playing in Mazda Stadium, I think the fans are great and Hiroshima is a great city.”