Welcome to the show, Andrew Saalfrank: Diamondbacks rookie gets a taste of the big-time

PHOENIX — On a Thursday afternoon that ended in celebration, Andrew Saalfrank entered in the sixth inning to boos from the home crowd at Chase Field. It wasn’t his fault. Arizona Diamondbacks fans weren’t happy with manager Torey Lovullo’s decision to pull starter Brandon Pfaadt.

Pfaadt had been dealing.

A rookie left-hander, Saalfrank had been with the Diamondbacks for six weeks, promoted from Triple-A Reno. Throughout the playoffs, he had played a key role in Arizona’s bullpen, avoiding trouble, pitching out of jams. Dating to his Sept. 4 promotion, he had not allowed an earned run in 14 appearances.

Saalfrank, 26, took the ball. Lovullo patted him on the leg. Third baseman Emmanuel Rivera did the same. Philadelphia Phillies slugger Kyle Schwarber, the hero of the National League Championship Series through two games, stepped in. The two had a connection.

Saalfrank and Schwarber both attended Indiana University. Schwarber was four years older, but Saalfrank had met him early in his college career. Schwarber had been a star from the start, an offensive force. Saalfrank was more of a late bloomer, stuck in the bullpen until an injury to a starting pitcher forced him into the rotation.

It changed his career.

On the mound in Game 3, with the score deadlocked 0-0, Saalfrank started with an 83-mph curveball that sailed outside the strike zone.

Indiana baseball coach Jeff Mercer would like to say he knew Saalfrank was destined for the big leagues. Truth is, in 2019, he viewed the lefty as a wild card.

“I love Andrew,” Mercer said during a recent phone conversation. “I’m a huge fan. But we had no idea what we were going to get. We didn’t know if he was going to consistently throw strikes. We didn’t know how he would manage the game. We didn’t know any of that.”

Saalfrank opened his junior season in the bullpen — and wasn’t good. In his first outing, against Memphis, he didn’t record an out. “I think I got yanked after three or four hitters,” Saalfrank said. “I had an infinite ERA and was like the joke of everybody.”

Not much later, Indiana’s Sunday starter, Tommy Sommer, suffered a meniscus injury. Mercer had no choice but to insert Saalfrank into the rotation. “They came up to me and were like, ‘Hey, pretty much you’re all we got. We’re going to have to make it work,’” Saalfrank said.

He started OK.

“I remember being pleasantly surprised — and this is going to sound bad — that he didn’t implode, like, immediately,” Mercer said. “It was like, ‘OK, that wasn’t bad.’”

And then he took off.

“It was probably, like, after his third or fourth start, like, he just starts wiping the mat with people,” Mercer said. “It’s like 10 strikeouts, 12 strikeouts. Massive swings and misses. Tons of whiffs. Then he started to really manage it, and once he got going, he got confident.”

Saalfrank thrived with a devastating breaking pitch. “He has the best curveball that I’ve ever seen anybody throw in my life, just because it’s so hard,” said Sommer, the injured IU starter who today pitches in the Chicago White Sox organization.

“If you ever needed a strike, you’d call the breaking ball,” Mercer said.

Saalfrank finished the 2019 season as the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year and as a second-team All-American. The Diamondbacks selected him in the sixth round of the 2019 MLB Draft.

All these years later, Saalfrank says that had Sommer not hurt his knee, he likely would’ve stayed in the bullpen. He’s not sure what would’ve happened. Nor is his coach.

“I always kind of laugh,” Mercer said. “It’s like, ‘Man, oh, man. You have this great player on your team and you don’t even know it.’ I think that’s the beauty of college sports as much as anything. Kids change so much. That’s why you play the games.”

Saalfrank walked Schwarber.

Still upset over Pfaadt, the Chase Field crowd grew restless. Two pitches later Saalfrank got Trea Turner to ground out to third, ending the inning.

Saalfrank comes from Hoagland, Ind., a town near Fort Wayne with a population of about 1,000. It has a pizza place and a gas station. One stop sign pretty much connects the whole town.

Dean Lehrman is the baseball coach at nearby Heritage High. He’s been there 36 years. He says Saalfrank is the only player who’s made it to the big leagues. Over the last two months, the Diamondbacks pitcher has become the talk of the town.

Upon his promotion to the Diamondbacks, Saalfrank said Lovullo told him he wasn’t there to pitch in blowouts. He would be used in high-pressure situations. Teammates were impressed with how Saalfrank handled this.

“What he’s done so far is incredible,” veteran relief pitcher Joe Mantiply said before the NLCS. “It’s way better than what I did when I first got to the big leagues. His composure, that’s kind of like the biggest thing to handle, just slowing the game down because it moves so fast. I think he’s done it exceptionally well.”

Lovullo sent Saalfrank out to pitch Thursday’s seventh for just one batter — lefty Bryce Harper. Saalfrank had faced the Philadelphia star in Game 2 and retired him with just one pitch, a sinker that Harper lined to shortstop.

This time, Saalfrank started with a sinker that Harper missed. But then he struggled to locate his curveball. He walked Harper on eight pitches. Harper eventually would score, giving the Phillies a 1-0 lead.

The Diamondbacks tied the contest in the bottom of the seventh. Ketel Marte won it in the ninth, 2-1, giving Arizona life in the series. In a celebratory clubhouse, Saalfrank sat at his locker, looking at his phone. Pfaadt had pitched so well. His job was to come in and keep Philadelphia from scoring. He felt like he had let down the team.

“Didn’t focus like I wanted to, didn’t execute pitches when I needed to execute,” Saalfrank said. “… But the guys were tremendous coming back and getting me off the hook a little bit. That joy and happiness of us winning this game is awesome.”

Throughout his short big-league stay, this was Saalfrank’s first significant setback. In the bullpen, responding is part of the job. With Arizona scheduled for a bullpen game on Friday, that opportunity likely will come soon enough.

(Photo: Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

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