Born to Close

By Aubrey Wieber

Published by Emerald Media Group on 5/23/13

Oregon was looking for its eighth straight victory, this one a home game with 1,329 fans looking on. Headed into the ninth inning, the Ducks nursed a 4-1 lead. Horton called up his most trusted arm: Jimmie Sherfy. He ran out from the pen, “Wild Thing” blaring from the speakers, as fans took to their feet, raucously cheering their beloved closer.

The first batter, Cory Lebrun, went down swinging. Next up was Marco Gonzalez, a pitcher projected to go number one overall in the 2013 draft. He knocked a single off the pitch. Caleb Wood, the next up, fell victim to Sherfy’s famous, and filthy, slider as he struck out swinging. Sherfy then got Clayton Eslick to pop up to right field, making easy work for Scott Heineman. Sherfy got his nation-leading 19th save to tie the Oregon school record he set his sophomore season.

Sherfy’s success during his two seasons at Oregon is unprecedented. In his first year playing for the Ducks (his sophomore year), he won second team All-American honors despite struggling with control over his pitches. This season he has surpassed the saves record from his sophomore year, leading the nation with 20 saves with three more regular season games to play. He has also corrected his only flaw from the previous season; this year, Sherfy throws nothing but strikes.

Sherfy has excelled as a closer at Oregon, which is surprising because he never had that role until the 2012 season. He was a starting pitcher all four years of high school. When he came to Oregon, Sherfy was in a battle throughout his freshman year trying to earn a spot in the starting rotation. Headed into his sophomore season, coach George Horton took him aside and informed him that he would be throwing out of the pen. Sherfy was crushed.

“I think initially he was pretty disappointed that he didn’t start,” said Brad Sherfy, Jimmie’s father. “I think they realized that and they were really supportive of him and said, ‘Hey look, we really need a big arm at the back-end and that’s where you’re going to help us the most.”

Sherfy admits that it was tough at first, but the transition was quick. Once he got his first opportunity to close during the season opening series in Hawaii, he never looked back and whole-heartedly embraced the intensity of the crowd and the pressure of being watched by everyone.

“I fell in love with closing, absolutely fell in love with it,” said Sherfy. “I never want to do anything else.”

His fit as a closer is ironic; in high school he was a slow starter, doing his best work in the final innings. Sherfy claims that it’s the pressure that gets him going right away.

“I love (the pressure),” said Sherfy. “I love it. If I go in with a four- or five-run lead, it’s iffy. Once it’s one or two runs I’m most dialed in. When the pressure is on, I love it.”

Coincidentally, one of Sherfy’s most prolific games came during his sophomore year of high school in a rare stint as a reliever on an April day in the Las Vegas desert.

Newbury Park High School had some how made it through the Bishop Gorman Easter Classic Tournament and were facing Bishop Gorman, host of the tournament and then No. 1 team in the nation. The problem was, after four and a third innings, they were down 7-1. With nothing left to lose, they threw in the 5-foot-7, 120-pound Sherfy.

He made light work of the MLB-bound hitters stepping to the plate for Bishop Gorman. It was one of the only days in his career that he had a great change-up, and he used it nearly every other pitch, dropping opposing batters like flies. In the final four and two-thirds innings, Sherfy threw one-hit baseball and Newbury Park came back to win 8-7.

“They just couldn’t score on him,” said Matt Goldfield, Newbury Park’s head baseball coach. “They couldn’t believe it — this little kid out there on the mound against these giants and he beat them.”

Sherfy’s family and former coaching staff, who are quick to bring it up when asked about his high school days, have immortalized the game against Bishop Gorman. Sherfy himself refers to the game as one of the best outings of his career. Maxpreps.com has it listed as the worst loss in Bishop Gorman history.

“It felt really good,” Sherfy said. “That was one of the highest (achievements) of my career. It was a great day.”

The David versus Goliath-like scene might have been jarring to the Bishop Gorman squad, the fans and probably even Sherfy himself, but not to Brad and Jenny Sherfy, Jimmie’s parents. Years of seeing Sherfy’s attraction to baseball morph into an obsession had prepared them for such an incredible game.

Ever since he started walking as an eight-month-old toddler, Sherfy enjoyed ball sports. As a young kid, he amazed his father with his natural athleticism and persistence as the two played ball in the front yard.

“We’d make up games,” said Brad Sherfy, fondly reminiscing. “We had a game where I’m throwing balls up against the fence and he’s diving for them and avoiding bushes and trees, we’d play that for hours.”

When his dad wasn’t available, Sherfy wasn’t deterred. He would take to the front yard himself and hit rocks across the street with a plastic bat. He would stay out there all day until it was dark and his parents had to force him to come inside.

“He just loved it,” said Jenny Sherfy. “We never pushed him. All he ever wanted to do was play baseball.”

Once at Oregon, Sherfy struggled with his command in his sophomore year. He hit 13 batters, walked 34 and threw four wild pitches that year, prompting the nickname “Wild Thing,” a reference to Ricky Vaughn from Major League.

Oddly enough, the lack of control that year was an anomaly; throughout his baseball career, Sherfy always displayed impeccable accuracy.

“Looking back at his pitching since he was six or seven, he’s always had good control,” said Brad Sherfy. “That’s the crazy thing. When he came out last year, he didn’t have the control, and it was really kind of out of character.”

He has since settled down. This season, Sherfy’s command of his pitches is nothing short of amazing. He leads the nation in saves (20) and strikeouts per nine innings (13.05). He has a 1.00 ERA and so far this season has only walked 13 batters and hit two, both coming in an out-of-character performance against Oregon State. The impressive season has put him on the watch list for four of the most prestigious awards in college baseball.

While he appreciates the awards, the most important thing for Sherfy is winning. Last season, the Ducks were two outs shy of a trip to Omaha when Sherfy dealt a ball that Kent State short stop Jimmy Rider popped up. It seemed like a routine out until it got lost in the sun and ended Oregon’s season. Sherfy isn’t to blame, but the trip to Omaha is still something that pushes him and something Brad Sherfy says he talks about often.

“Absolutely (he talks about it). The focus is going deep into the playoffs. Last year was a great year, it just came up a little short.”

Sherfy has come a long way since that day in Las Vegas. His 95 mph fastball and the “slider you can’t touch,” as fellow Oregon pitcher Christian Jones once put it, have made their mark on top-tier batters up and down the West Coast. However, behind all the hype, awards and nicknames is just a shy kid itching to get a shot at Omaha.