SAPAKOFF COLUMN: 12 siblings, 8 roommates, 95 mph heat: RiverDogs' Rafael DePaula on Yankees fast track


Rafael DePaula phoned home to the Dominican Republic before an opening night start at Riley Park. Ceneida DePaula prayed with her 22-year-old son, about to pitch in a real baseball game for the first time on U.S. soil.

It was also the very first night game for one of the New York Yankees' top prospects.

Amid the festivities, DePaula was miserable.

The Charleston RiverDogs' right-hander threw 11 — count 'em, 11 — straight balls to Augusta GreenJackets batters before finding the plate.

“I was a little nervous,” DePaula said. “I really didn't know how to act in the first game in the U.S. under the lights. I asked myself, 'What's going on?' ”

RiverDogs pitching coach Danny Borrell paid a visit to the mound.

“I tried to get him to laugh a little bit,” Borrell said. “Just pitching coach talk. Probably things that wouldn't be safe to put in the paper.”

Something worked.

DePaula recovered to strike out the side with fastballs touching 95 mph in a 3-0 loss. The beat goes on — DePaula leads all of minor league baseball with 58 strikeouts (in only 331/3 innings) and is 3-2 with a 2.70 earned run average.

Shaky introductions and nice adjustments are part of the DePaula resume. He was suspended for a year by Major League Baseball in 2009 for lying about his age. Unlike other birth certificate fibbers, DePaula cut only a year off his actual age and was allowed to sign with the Yankees for a $500,000 bonus in 2010.

The Yankees have a bargain wearing No. 37 for the RiverDogs, a 6-3, 215-pound power pitcher with a playful personality.

“He loves to compete,” said Borrell, a former Wake Forest pitcher and designated hitter. “It seems like he has a blast out there. He's ready to work every day when he comes to the field. He's been a joy to be around.”

DePaula throws a four-seam fastball that tends to rise over bats.

“A lot of deception to it,” Borrell said. “The ball really gets on hitters.”

An improving curveball, and a changeup also works for strikes.

RiverDogs manager Al Pedrique thinks DePaula has a “special arm.”

“The thing I like is the way the ball comes out of his hand, real easy,” said Pedrique, a former major league player and manager. “He's controlling the strike zone much better.”

DePaula grew up admiring big leaguers Josh Beckett and Felix Hernandez.

“I like to watch videos of them to see how they pitch and how they challenge hitters,” he said through an interpreter. “I like the way they throw the fastball very aggressively early in the count.”

In Charleston, DePaula lives with eight Latino teammates in a three-bedroom West Ashley apartment. Left fielder Kelvin DeLeon and second baseman Claudio Custodio do most of the cooking, but DePaula is eager to learn.

“To make sure I get enough to eat,” he said.

A crowded house isn't unusual for DePaula. Back home in La Victoria, his parents raised 13 children. Rafael Sr. is a retired miner.

“I told him he doesn't have to work anymore,” DePaula said.

DePaula seems to smile with every other breath. Exception: that first outing in Charleston. DePaula issued three walks, threw a wild pitch and hit an Augusta batter in the head before getting an out.

“But once I threw a couple strikes, I started to feel relaxed and then I was able to enjoy the moment,” DePaula said. “I made some adjustments, and for the first time out there, I thought I did well.”

DePaula met with Borrell and Pedrique for an extensive review of the first start. Mechanics have been tweaked during bullpen sessions.

“I have more confidence every time I go out,” DePaula said.

His parents always are part of the progress. Before each start, it's the pregame prayer routine. DePaula places the call after the game.

“It's the first thing I do, let them know how I did.” DePaula said. “They want a full report. The boxscore and how many innings I pitched.”

At this rate, the DePaula family postgame analysis will generate from Yankee Stadium some summer soon.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.