Two totally unrelated and unexpected developments had a profound effect on the career of Stephen Fife, a 24-year-old right-hander who reported to spring training this year prior to being assigned to Portland.
The first occurred the summer after Fife’s sophomore year in high school in his hometown of Boise, Idaho.
The second occurred during his junior year at the University of Utah.
“I didn’t begin pitching until I was 17,” said Fife, who’s 1-0 with a 0.00 ERA in one start with Portland. “I liked playing the infield which is what I was doing. And I liked playing quarterback on our football team.”
But during his sophomore year, Fife fractured his left thumb while playing third base and was sidelined for the rest of the season.
That injury failed to deter Fife from hanging around the field.
“I would go to high school practice every day and help as much as I could,” said Fife. “In the down time, I would take a bucket of baseballs and throw into the bullpen net in order to keep my arm in shape for the summer season.
“One day, I decided to play around a bit and pitch off the mound. I set a metal folding chair on top of home plate. After throwing several fastballs, I thought to myself ‘Let’s see what it’s like to throw a breaking pitch.’ I didn’t think anybody was watching me at the time.”
Wise decision. Wrong assumption, because his pitching coach had his eyes focused on Fife.
“I broke off a few curveballs and my coach liked what he saw,” recalled Fife. “He came over to me and said ‘Throw that again.’ I did and it hit directly on top of the seat of that chair. He looked me right in the eye and said ‘You’re a pitcher now – period.’
“I looked at him somewhat in disbelief and said, ‘No way.’ But my coach won that battle (surprise). My first appearance that summer was as a reliever. From there it just took off. I tried to become a student (of pitching) and learn as much as I could. So, that’s why I’m where I am today.”
Well, that’s almost why Fife is where he is today, as one of Boston’s better pitching prospects.
Another reason occurred on April 11, 2008 when Utah was playing at San Diego State and Fife’s mound opponent was Stephen Strasburg.
Right. THAT Stephen Strasburg, the top overall pick in the 2009 draft by the Washington Nationals who torched the National League much of last season before tearing his right ulnar collateral ligament.
Scouts, of course, were in abundance at that game to watch Strasburg.
Fife, if anything, was an afterthought.
Strasburg blanked Utah, 1-0. In the process, he allowed one hit plus one walk and struck out a Western Athletic Conference-record 23 batters.
Fife, obviously, came out on the short end of that decision even though he allowed just an unearned run on five hits and one walk, and fanned five in 6 2/3 innings.
But in the process Fife became somebody instead of remaining nobody.
“I talked to about five teams before that game, and the next game we played, at New Mexico, there must have been something like 20 scouts there,” recalled Fife. “Then, when we played our next home game, there was something like 35 scouts.
“If I didn’t face (Strasburg) that night, when there were so many people there to watch him, then I wouldn’t be where I am today. Without question, it was a coincidence. But I guess you can’t buy that kind of exposure.”
There’s no truth to the rumor that Fife gave Strasburg a small percentage of his $460,000 signing bonus after Boston snared him in the third round of the 2008 draft. But Fife might have been justified in doing so given the attention that matchup drew.
Now, flash forward to the 2010 season which Fife spent at Portland.
He led the Sea Dogs in wins (8), starts (28) and innings pitched (136 1/3) while going 8-6 with a 4.75 ERA.
His groundball ratio of 47.7 was second-best among Sea Dogs pitchers last season who worked at least 60 innings. And only one other pitcher in Boston’s farm system pitched more innings than Fife because of the strict pitch count the Red Sox impose on their minor league pitchers.
“We have a pitch count that they stick us with pretty firmly,” Fife said in a massive understatement. “But it’s going to be a goal of mine to go as deep as I can into games with that pitch count.
“That’s something I figured out at Portland last year, which was my first 100-plus inning season.”
Fife also figured out a few other things last season at Portland.
“The major differences in making the transition from Class A to Class AA were the quality of the hitters, the quality of their pitch recognition and the umpire’s (strike) zone, which tightened up,” said Fife. “We also talked about the importance of throwing first-pitch strikes.
“I learned that, in a 0-1 count, hitters hit about .180 but in a 1-0 count they hit .400. It’s definitely a goal of mine to throw more first-pitch strikes.”
Fife’s repertoire consists of a two-seam fastball, a 12-to-6 curveball and a changeup which he admits is still a work in progress.
“There’s a lot of room for development in my changeup, but it did come along last year in terms of my being able to keep it down in the zone,” he said. “My curveball’s always been there for me. But I’m going to try to use the four-seam fastball a little more this year in terms of elevating pitches.
“It should give hitters a different look. I want to be able to locate it in and out.”
Arnie Beyeler, who managed Fife last season at Portland and was promoted to Pawtucket during the offseason, is high on Fife’s “stuff.”
“He understands what stuff is working for him on a given day,” said Beyeler. “He knows how to use it to his advantage and also how to counter when things aren’t working.
“He has some quality stuff which is a big thing for him.”
So is Fife’s ability to field his position – something whichis often overlooked when it comes to pitchers who are inclined to view PFP (pitchers fielding practice) like it’s part of a foreign language.
“Stephen can field a bunt,” said Beyeler. “He knows how to hold runners on base. And he knows where to throw the ball when it’s hit back to him. He helps control his own game.
“I think some of our young guys got tired during the second half of last season, especially those who were in their first season of Double A. But (Fife) posted up every time out and gave us quality innings.
“Although he got tired in the second half of last season,” continued Beyeler, “just the fact he went out and competed was a sign of development.”
Another of Fife’s goals when it comes to development is to control his weight.
“Between Greenville and Salem (in 2009) I gained about 15 pounds that season and got up to about 240 pounds,” said the 6-foot-4 Fife. “I came back to spring training around 211 and had a meeting with (Boston Vice President of Player Development) Mike Hazen. He said it wasn’t acceptable to have that (weight gain) happen.
“It was kind of a wakeup call for me. That was the first time in my life when that happened to me and it made me realize what’s expected of me in terms of nutrition.”
Think Fife could call Strasburg for a few tips?