By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — We all have those moments when, for whatever reason, what was once clouded and obscure bursts into a brilliant and suddenly clear illumination.
And maybe, just maybe, Mariners right-hander Erasmo Ramirez experienced one such moment just more than three months ago while pitching for Lara against Caracus in the Venezuelan Winter League.
It was Ramirez’s first winter start after an encouraging close to another injury-interrupted season. Here he was back home, and simply unable to muster up the power fastball that he so relies upon.
With no choice, Ramirez concentrated on spotting his pitches and … voila, it was as if the stadium lights came on between his ears. He rolled through five nearly perfect innings (no hits, six strikeouts and one walk).
“I asked myself, ‘Well, how did I do that?’” Ramirez recalled. “I just hit the corners. I didn’t have the speed, but I was able to mix my pitches.
“After that game, I put it in my mind: I don’t have throw just fastballs to anyone. I just have to be smart.”
Ramirez, 23, will be first out of the box today — he’s slotted for two innings — when the Mariners open their 33-game Cactus League schedule against San Diego at Peoria Stadium.
“Ideally for us,’ manager Lloyd McClendon said, “we’d like to see this guy as a starter. Keep him in a starting role and let him flourish.”
So today amounts to an immediate chance for Ramirez to make a good impression. He is generally viewed as a strong candidate to hold a spot in the rotation … if he can stay healthy.
Ramirez won a bullpen job two years ago in spring and advanced to the rotation in mid-June before suffering an elbow injury that set him back for two months. He then closed the season with four consecutive quality starts.
A year ago, he loomed as a good bet for the rotation before tendinitis in his right triceps forced him to the minors and, by April, onto the disabled list.
Ramirez made nine minor-league starts after returning in late May before rejoining the Mariners in mid-July. He went 5-3 with a 4.98 ERA in 14 big-league games, including 13 starts, over the closing two-plus months.
“It’s just been little nagging injuries,” pitching coach Rick Waits said. “None of them have been really big. We all know he’s got stuff. And all the competitiveness. That’s what he really brings to the table.”
What Ramirez also brought to the table was a troubling tendency to serve up home runs. He permitted at least one in nine of his 13 starts. Too often, hitters seemed to just sit on his fastball.
That, too, he believes will change with his new approach.
“In Venezuela,” Ramirez said, “I got my confidence back. What I learned is it’s not that easy to read the pitches if you have the same arm speed and the same mechanics.
“You do that, and it’s hard (for the batter) to read your pitches. Now, I just have to do that.”
It’s a less-is-more approach that might have one other benefit, particularly early in camp.
“Before, I would just throw like crazy,” he admitted. “Just throw as hard as I can. Right from the beginning. Now, I’m smarter. I’m still using my fastball, but I’m trying to rely more on command instead of just speed.
“Before, I wasn’t smart in the way I threw. I just pushed my body too much. Now, it’s not bad to push yourself, but the body has a limit. I passed that limit the last two years.”
The key now, Ramirez acknowledged, is not to let his competitive drive overwhelm his new-found common sense.
“Everybody wants to be in the rotation,” he said. “This is a competition. But if I stay healthy, I have more time to show them what I can do. The way to do that is to not think about (the competition).
“Just throw the ball. Just pitch. If you know the hitters, use it. If you know their weaknesses, use it. Don’t always just try to get them out with a fastball. You can still be aggressive with every pitch.”