Making His Way Under the Radar
Last Wednesday, Ramirez was home again, and the swinging and missing continued in his sixth start of the year. He allowed a leadoff single, promptly picked off that runner off and then retired 12 straight batters. At one point, he struck out five in a row, all flailing at fastballs.
"This guy right here looks like he throws golf balls out there," said teammate Chris Smith, sitting behind home plate and staring at radar readings that rarely rose above 89 mph. "You think it should be out of the park, and Boom!, it's just by the guy. Just by the guy like it was 100 mph. . . . He's just got that extra whatever-it-is."
While others try to explain this late bounce -- Clendenin calls it "the gift," and Aberdeen pitching coach Andre Rabouin says "it's just something he's blessed with" -- Ramirez claims his success isn't very complicated.
"As I move up, I know that I have to work on other pitches, but it starts with the fastball," he said through Angel Natal, an employee with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation who suddenly finds himself functioning as Ramirez's Spanish interpreter (Ramirez speaks only minimal English). "My approach is simple. I try to get a first-pitch ground ball. Then, with two strikes -- go for the strikeout."
Ramirez has added 10 or 15 pounds to his still lanky 6-foot-4 frame over the past three years, and teammates speculate that his height might add to the fastball's verve. The pitcher's father, Luis, a government contractor, is 6-7. Two younger sisters each flirt with the 6-foot mark. In fact, Ramirez fancied himself a basketball player until he was 16, when a scout spotted him throwing a ball in a casual game with friends.
After signing with the Orioles, he pitched in the Venezuelan league, and by 2002 he was a reliever with Baltimore's rookie league team in Sarasota. He led the Gulf Coast League with 15.7 strikeouts per nine innings, but a high earned run average and occasionally spotty fundamentals brought him back for another year in Sarasota, where he became a starter and again led the league in strikeouts per nine innings.
Despite his first rough outing of the season last night, Ramirez easily leads the New York-Penn League with 57 strikeouts in 36 innings -- an average of 14.25 per nine innings -- and has yielded only 21 hits and nine walks.
But one pitch, however potent, will likely not be enough to propel Ramirez through the Orioles system. Rodgers noted that John Maine struck out hitters at a similar rate last year in Delmarva -- 12.7 per nine innings -- but remained in less advanced Class A all year to polish his repertoire. Several Orioles officials said that Ramirez needs to work on his breaking ball and change-up while also locating his fastball lower in the strike zone.
In the meantime, Ramirez said he's satisfied pitching for Aberdeen, sleeping in a bunk bed with fellow Venezuelan Arturo Rivas and borrowing Rhodes's TrailBlazer for trips to Wal-Mart and the mall.
"Obviously I'd like to move up, but it's not up to me," he said. "I'm just here doing my job. Once the Orioles ask me to move up, I'd be happy to."
His teammates have less measured assessments -- "Mariano Rivera Number Two," said shortstop Elvis Morel. And Aberdeen's coaches acknowledge that Ramirez's results have not exactly been ordinary.
"He can go a long way. He can go and be an all-star pitcher if he keeps going like that," said Alfaro, who also managed Ramirez in Sarasota. "With the stuff he has, you cannot find that, you cannot teach that."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company