Ramirez developing into a top starter

The Atlanta Braves have been waiting for Horacio Ramirez to become a top pitcher, and this year has been the year. His victory Sunday was his sixth quality appearance in eight starts. The Braves Show's Bill Shanks talked with Ramirez, Braves' Manager Bobby Cox, and Pitching Coach Roger McDowell about the emergence of the young lefty.

Everyone seems to agree: Horacio Ramirez is pitching the best baseball of his career.

"I think so - by far," said Braves' Manager Bobby Cox Sunday afternoon. "He's one of the top guys right now. Pretty classy out there."

"Probably," admitted Ramirez. "I'm having a lot more fun this year than last year."

The 26-year-old southpaw won his fourth game of the season Sunday, limiting the Baltimore Orioles to three runs on seven hits over eight innings of work. The Braves won 10-3 for their first series win at home in more than a month.

"It was a well-pitched game by Ramirez," Cox said. "Even the last inning he pitched, he got all ground balls and no damage. Really outstanding. Sinker is really sinking, and his changeup is good. He pitched in. He just had great control all day long."

"I felt good the whole day," Ramirez said.

And he's felt good for most of the season, when he's been okay. Take away his first game of the season, when he pulled his hamstring against the Dodgers in Los Angeles, and the game in Houston when he was hit in the head, and Ramirez has been outstanding. In those six games, he's gone 4-1 with a 1.61 ERA in 44.2 innings, with 8 earned runs, 13 walks, 20 strikeouts, and only two home runs allowed.

"I'm taking it pitch-by-pitch," Ramirez said of his new philosophy. "That's really what's helping me out this year, just focusing on pitch-by-pitch. That's leading to ground balls and better location."

The improvement in his control, his strikeouts, and in keeping the ball in the ballpark has been tremendous. His walks per 9IP is 2.74 this year, compared to 2.98 in 2005 and 4.48 in his abbreviated 2004 season. Ramirez's strikeouts per 9IP are up from 3.56 in 2005 to 4.38 this season. And after allowing a team-high 31 home runs in 202.1 innings last season, Ramirez has allowed only three in 49.1 innings this year.

"I've just grown so much from last year," Ramirez said. "I think last year I used to put a little too much pressure on myself to be perfect and make the perfect pitch. This year… throw the ball down in the zone, move it inside out, change speeds, and leave it a lot more simple. I've been able to stay away from the big innings and just had more fun out there this year."

Ramirez has been one pitcher that has drastically benefited from the pitching coach change. He's forged a solid relationship with Roger McDowell, and the extensive work the two have put in is showing results.

"We've talked a lot of pitching, not about the physical, but the mental aspects of pitching," Ramirez said. "He's got a lot of insight. He's helped me out a lot."

"Well I think the majority of the time, as we've seen other than the hiccup he had in Houston, is that he's pitching to the strength of his sinker and changeup," McDowell said. "He's able to get a predominantly right-handed hitting lineup off the plate with cutters, four-seam fastballs, and off speed with his curveball. But he's relying basically on his sinker and changeup."

"Obviously today he had both of those two pitches going, and he got a lot of ground balls. He fielded his position well and got early-count outs, which allowed him to get deep in the game. He had around 100 pitches, and his toughest inning was the eighth, and still had some gas in the tank left."

One thing that McDowell has worked hard on with Ramirez is his pitch selection. He advised the lefty to be more selective in using his cutter, a pitch some felt he used too much in the past.

"He's using it," McDowell admitted. "I guess more than anything he's very aware of the fact where that pitch needs to be located. If it's going to be a ball, it's going to be a ball. It's not going to make itself stay on the plate. If it gets in, it gets in. Sometimes it might get away and hit a few guys, but you probably rather have that pitch as a ball or off as opposed to the alternative. He's basically been pitching to his strength, and he's had some quality starts and a pretty good run."

Don't count Ramirez as someone giving up on this 2006 season. Maybe his success has him more confident than others, but he feels this Braves' team still has the talent to turn things around in the second half.

It's no secret we haven't done well, but we're fighting and we believe in ourselves and we think we're going to get back in the thick of things," Ramirez said. "I still think we have a good chance at gaining some ground on the Mets and on the wildcard. We've just got to take it one day at a time."

As someone that has become more aggressive this season, and more successful, it's no surprise Ramirez is still hopeful at another playoff run. His new pitching coach believes that's simply his personality coming out a bit, which is good for the pitching staff and the entire team.

"He's a very confident young man," McDowell said. "He goes out there every fifth day and is very confident in what he can do. He believes in himself. He believes every time he goes out to the mound he's going to win. When you go out with that attitude, it's half the battle."

For a team still 13.5 games behind the Mets, and 9 games back in the wildcard race, that's an attitude that needs to spread a bit in the clubhouse.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.

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