LOS ANGELES--As recently as last April, Oregon coach George Horton said his electric young closer needed to do a better job controlling his emotions and improving his body language. Jimmie Sherfy had already begun to emerge as one of college baseball’s most talented closers, but mentally, “he was still in his infancy stage,” as Horton put it.
Sherfy earned Horton’s full trust over the course of his 2012 sophomore season, when he went 5-3, 2.20 with 19 saves and 93 strikeouts in 61 innings to earn second-team All-America honors. Now, he is an utterly dominant force at the back of the Oregon bullpen, in control of his emotions as well as his overpowering stuff. Sherfy gives much of the credit to renowned Cal State Fullerton sports psychologist Ken Ravizza.
“Before, like in high school, I had a terrible attitude,” Sherfy said. “I couldn’t really get to the next pitch. If something went wrong, it would just pile up, pile up--I just had a terrible attitude. (Ravizza’s) given me all these different lingoes, like, ‘Next pitch.’ This year, the first couple times on the mound, I had a bad mentality, like soft, really tentative. I went and talked to him down at Cal State (Fullerton, when the Ducks were in town in early March), asked him a couple questions. He was just telling me, ‘Just go for it. Just say, watch this.’ Every time before every single pitch, I go, ‘Watch this.’ That’s the only thing I think of: ‘Watch this.’ ”
Anyone watching is in for a treat on any given Sherfy delivery. Though he’s just 6 feet, 175 pounds, Sherfy generates plus velocity, sitting at 93-94 mph even when pitching for a second consecutive day. His trademark pitch is a wipeout power slider in the 83-85 range, with vicious two-plane break when it’s really working.
That combination results in strikeout after strikeout. Six weeks into the season, Sherfy has been even better than he was last year, going 1-0, 1.65 with seven saves, 24 strikeouts and seven walks in 16 innings.
Even after Sherfy saved back-to-back games at Southern California in Week Five, using nasty sliders to record two strikeouts in a 1-2-3 ninth in his second appearance of the weekend, Sherfy and Horton both said his slider hasn’t been as devastating as it was a year ago. Sherfy said he has been getting underneath it, causing it to flatten out at times, but when he stays on top of it, it is one of the best pitches in college baseball.
But another sign of Sherfy’s maturation is that he can succeed even without his best slider, because his fastball command “is way better than last year,” as Sherfy put it.
“Last year, we had to pitch backwards with him--he had no idea where his fastball was going,” Horton said. “So man, it’s really exciting for me; when he does get his real good slider back, it’s going to be fun.”
Where Sherfy goes, fun tends to follow. A free-spirited native of Camarillo, Calif., not far from the scenic coastline north of Los Angeles, Sherfy marches to the beat of his own drummer. While spending the summer of 2011 with the Corvallis Knights of the West Coast League, Sherfy started his own clothing line in a style he describes as “California surfer.” It’s called Callix Clothing (callixclothing.com), and its motto is, “Stay Handsome.”
Horton jokes that Sherfy is a goofy lefthander trapped in a righty’s body. Sherfy’s nature makes him “a hard guy to be on the same page with at times” for Horton, like when he shakes off Horton’s pitch calls four or five times in a row, but he keeps the veteran coach on his toes--and that’s a good thing.
“He has a lot of fun,” Horton said. “He’s the guy always chirping in the dugout, and I have to tell him to shut up. So he has a lot of fun playing the game, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
When Sherfy trots in from the bullpen at Oregon’s PK Park, with his long blonde hair flowing out from under his hat and “Wild Thing” blaring over the loudspeakers, Oregon fans go wild. He seems like he was born to be a closer--but he actually arrived in Eugene hoping to start.
Sherfy made just two relief appearances as a freshman in 2010, and the Ducks extended him in scrimmages before the 2011 season, still unsure if they were going to use him as a starter or a reliever. He settled in the bullpen, where his destiny was fulfilled.
“Last year, I got put in this role. I was kind of disappointed because I wanted to start, obviously,” Sherfy said. “But it was a blessing in disguise. My personality is I want to go 100 percent on anything I do, super competitive, and it’s the perfect fit for me. I never really want to start again--I fell in love with closing. Absolutely love it.”
For his part, Horton said he “fell in love with him so much” last year that he leaned on him too heavily as a sophomore, often using him for two-plus-inning saves to shorten ballgames.
“He always wants the ball, even if his arm doesn’t feel great,” Horton said. “And I kicked myself in the rear end because he kind of wore down as the season went along. We’re going to try our best this year to use him as a true closer, one inning. He’s pitched back to back, he’s thrown three days in a row, but we want to not overdo it and have that honesty. He wants to pitch because he wants to help the team, but is it smart for me to let him out there? Because we want him strong at the end of the year as well.”
In Oregon’s final game last season, in the decisive third game of the Eugene Super Regional against Kent State, Sherfy was on the mound with the score tied in the ninth inning. After a leadoff walk and a sacrifice bunt, Sherfy felt something wrong in his elbow, and Horton went to the mound to check on him. Sherfy stayed in the game, and the next batter--Jimmy Rider--blooped a game-winning RBI double into no-man’s-land in left field, ending Oregon’s season.
“To be honest with you, I shouldn’t have let him make that next pitch,” Horton said. “I did that with my emotions and heart. We didn’t have a good choice with the game on the line and Omaha on the line. I promised myself I would never do that again. There was no question his arm didn’t feel right, but he begged me to stay in, and I gave in. If I had to do that over again, I would have gone to anybody in the bullpen. And, I’m a little corny. I believe the game punished me and the team with that bloop base hit, because I got selfish about winning. As the adult and the teacher, you never should let winning get in the way of the human being, and I did that.”
It turned out, Sherfy had a small stress fracture in the bone at the end of his elbow, which kept him from pitching with Team USA that summer and sidelined him until late in the fall. Sherfy said missing a chance to join Horton with the national team was “devastating,” but he said ultimately that was another blessing in disguise.
“It just made me put things in perspective,” Sherfy said. “It made me really appreciate baseball. When I was out, I couldn’t really do anything. Baseball was like my whole life. When that got taken away from me, I think that made me an even harder worker, and an even better baseball player this year. It made me that much hungrier, that much more appreciative of the situation I was in.”
For the rest of this season, the Ducks will certainly appreciate every time Sherfy stares a hitter down and thinks to himself, “Watch this.”