Ramirez proving he belongs

ROUND ROCK, Texas – Right-hander Neil Ramirez took advantage of his one-day Triple-A assignment on Wednesday, hurling six scoreless innings with five strikeouts against a talented Omaha lineup. Lone Star Dugout interviews the 21-year-old while taking an in-depth look at his start.

When right-hander Neil Ramirez arrived at the ballpark in Frederick, Md., on Tuesday afternoon, he was told that he'd be flying to Texas for a spot-start with Triple-A Round Rock.

It was a nice surprise for the 21-year-old, who had just one start above he Low-A level. Ramirez made his High-A debut last week, tossing 4.2 scoreless innings while yielding one hit, walking one, and striking out nine.

Ramirez was told he'd be filling a spot for ill right-hander Eric Hurley. According to express manager Bobby Jones, Hurley's sickness shouldn't be anything to worry about––he's expected to be back soon.

"He had something wrong with him and they didn't know how it was going to take, so we put him on the disabled list back to his last start so he wouldn't be that far away," Jones said. "He was here today running around, so he's fine. But then Seth McClung went home today with the stomach flu, so whatever it is, it's going around the clubhouse."

Hurley's illness provided an excellent opportunity for Ramirez to prove himself at the higher level. The former first-round pick showed signs of breaking out in spring training this year, when he flashed two promising secondary pitches to go along with a fastball that topped out at 97 mph.

Pitching against a talented Omaha Storm Chasers lineup on Wednesday evening, Ramirez appeared to fit right in at the Triple-A level, despite his lack of upper-level experience.

The hurler logged six shutout frames on 75 pitches, giving up three singles, walking zero, and striking out five. He faced just one over the minimum and retired 15 of the final 16 hitters he faced.

"He was outstanding," Jones said after the game. "It was the first time I've ever seen him pitch. They said he came up from Myrtle Beach, and you figure some young kid will come up and be nervous. You don't really expect that. He was unreal. He went out there just like he's been in Triple-A his whole life. It was a great effort."

As Jones mentioned, Ramirez's mound presence was perhaps even more impressive than his above-average stuff. He pitched more like a veteran than a youngster making an emergency spot start. Not only did Ramirez consistently get ahead of hitters (50 strikes out of 75 pitches), but he also worked quickly and stayed in rhythm throughout the start.

The result, in pitching against 16-year major league veteran Jeff Suppan, was a two hour and one minute game. And as Ramirez explains in the following interview, he and Myrtle Beach pitching coach Brad Holman have put an emphasis on speeding up his in-game tempo.

Ramirez also showed upper-level stuff, throwing his fastball anywhere between 92-96 mph with good angle from his long-limbed 6-foot-3 frame. Particularly in the later innings, he worked in the 92-94 mph range but amped it up late in counts to finish off hitters. All five strikeouts came on fastballs from 94-96 mph––four swinging and one looking.

Last season––and particularly late in 2010––Ramirez flashed similar velocity and threw lots of strikes but had a tendency to live up in the zone. The result was a strong strikeout-to-walk ratio (142-37 in 140.1 innings) with 150 hits surrendered. On Wednesday, he was doing a better job of working low with his fastball and climbing the ladder when necessary. The within-the-zone command could still improve a bit, but with his recently cleaned-up delivery, he should show consistent above-average fastball command with time.

While the Virginia Beach native's hard downer curveball is normally a plus offering, he didn't really have the sharp swing-and-miss breaker on Wednesday––making his Triple-A success all the more impressive.

Ramirez, who didn't break out the curve until the third inning, threw only five of 11 breaking balls for strikes. The offering had good depth but wasn't at its sharpest and didn't induce any swings from the Omaha lineup––all 11 curves were either balls or called strikes.

Facing a Storm Chasers lineup that featured six left-handed hitters, Ramirez mostly went to his fastball and––to a lesser extent––changeup with two strikes. He used the curve early in counts more often than not.

Ramirez displayed a good deal of confidence in his 84-87 mph changeup. Although his command of the pitch was inconsistent––he threw five of 11 for strikes and spiked five in the dirt––it induced a few swinging strikes and a weak groundout to third base.

While inconsistent, the changeup looked like a potential future plus pitch. Ramirez threw the offering with excellent arm speed, and the pitch had good action with just enough velocity separation from his often mid-90s fastball. After the game, Ramirez chalked up some of the spiked changes to him simply being too amped up at times.

The effective changeup is a relatively new development for Ramirez, who struggled to find even a rudimentary feel for his change as recently as two seasons ago. With Single-A Hickory in '09, he was having trouble throwing a straight, firm change for strikes.

Even after the solid start, Ramirez had his plane ticket in-hand and was prepared for a return to the High-A Carolina League on Thursday morning.

"He's leaving tomorrow," said the Round Rock manager. "If we need somebody else down the road, I'm sure he'll be back. But that was the plan––get him here, pitch tonight, and then send him back.

"It should be a big confidence builder for him. He was throwing strikes with everything he has––fastball, curveball, and changeup. He did a great job."

Ramirez may be heading back to Myrtle Beach, but if he continues to show the mixture of stuff, command and confidence that he has since spring training, he could find himself with Double-A Frisco before long.

After showing steady improvement and a tireless work ethic over the last two seasons, the 6-foot-3 righty had his coming out party on Wednesday night in Round Rock––he is proving himself to be in the mix with Martin Perez and Tanner Scheppers as the Rangers' top echelon of pitching prospects.

Prospect Video:

Neil Ramirez warms up before Triple-A start from Jason Cole on Vimeo.

How did you feel about the outing tonight?

I felt good about it. I tried to go out there and compete and give these guys a chance to win. I wanted to stick with the routine and the game plan and do what I've been doing so far.

When did you find out that you'd be heading up to Triple-A for a start?

They told me when I got to the field yesterday. They told me that Eric Hurley had gotten sick with something, which is unfortunate. But they told me I was just going up there to make a start and help them win. So that's what I came here to do.

So I guess you really didn't have much time to think about it.

I think it kind of helped it out a little bit with the nerves. Because it was so quick. I just went with it and said, ‘I'll take the ball wherever you want me to pitch.'

What was your mindset coming into tonight, with just one start above Low-A ball?

I just tried to not make too much out of it. I didn't try to get caught up in it being Triple-A or whoever I was facing. I just tried to go out there and attack the hitters. I saw the mitt and threw to it.

Obviously you guys share a spring training complex with the Royals. Had you ever faced some of these hitters before?

Yeah, I've faced Moustakas and Hosmer before. Hosmer has kind of got my number right now. I've gotten Moustakas a couple times. But I'd seen these guys play, too, in Triple-A. I knew they were a good squad. I think they won it last year in Double-A. So I knew I was going to have to keep the ball down and really get after them.

The game was just two hours and one minute long. It seemed like you were working quickly out there.

Yeah, that's a big thing that they preached to us in the offseason––tempo. I've really tried to work on the rhythm of my delivery. It was kind of methodical there for awhile. Just getting used to it and getting to the point where I can repeat it every time. Now I feel like I'm to the point where I can make it mine and pick up the rhythm and tempo a little bit.

You're definitely working quicker than you have in the past, right?

Yeah, big time. I know me and Brad Holman––after the first bullpen in Myrtle Beach, Brad was like, ‘We've worked on the delivery so much, but now it's time to make it yours and pick up the tempo. Get your rhythm and find your pace.' That's what I've been trying to do.

You spent two years working with Holman in Hickory on getting your mechanics straightened out. How big of a factor has he been in your development?

With Brad, I give him credit for really turning the career around with me. First and foremost, he's just a great person. I like to think of him as a great person first and a pitching coach second for what he has done for me. He has really helped me grow up mentally and become a man, so to speak. And with the delivery––he preached it and it got to the point where I could repeat it and make it mine.

How did you feel about your curveball tonight?

I thought it was pretty good. The changeup I thought was good early. I was able to get some guys to swing and miss on that––get them out front. I started spiking it there towards the end. I was maybe a little amped up. But I thought the curveball had some good break on it tonight, and I felt like I could throw it for a strike.

What has been the key to bringing your changeup along? I know you really weren't happy with it two years ago in Hickory.

I really didn't have a changeup two years ago. I just tried to keep throwing it and get comfortable with it. It's just one of those things where I played a lot of catch with it.

And you're going to Maryland and rejoining Myrtle Beach tomorrow?

?Yeah, I'm going to go back to High-A and take it like it was tonight. I'm just going to look at it as another opportunity.

After a good finish last season, a strong spring, and a nice start here, can you talk about your confidence level and how much it has grown? It seemed like you were attacking with confidence tonight.

The confidence is huge. You don't like to think about results too much––you focus on the process and the journey. But being able to see some results and seeing the fruits of my labor pay off a little bit––I've still got a long way to go. But definitely seeing some results and getting some guys out has given me the confidence to go out there and really slow things down.

You got out to Arizona in November this year, didn't you?

Yeah, I was out there with Tanner Scheppers and living at his place. I worked with (strength and conditioning coach) Napoleon Pichardo in the offseason, and he's great. We really pushed the tempo. That's what I think is going to help me stay healthy and pitch long into games.

By the end of spring training, you had been out there for about five months. I have to assume you were really itching to get the regular season going.

I felt like I was in midseason form there right out of the gate. Getting into those big league games helped me out, too. I was ready to go.

After six scoreless innings tonight, were you trying to lobby for another inning in the dugout?

I didn't say that I was ready to come out, but they took me out. I think the pitch count right now for us is right around 75, so I'm just going by what they tell me to do.

Did you notice any major differences between the hitters you faced tonight versus the High-A squad in your last start?

These guys are patient. I was able to get them swinging tonight. They were aggressive just as much as I was, so I used that to my advantage. They were really going after the fastball. But, like I said, I just tried to keep it the same and go after them.

With your fastball, it seemed like you worked in the 92-93 range a lot in the later innings but amped it up late in counts to put guys away.

I try to work ahead of guys with the fastball and then pump up when I need to. I think that's what I'm going to have to do as a starter. Some freaks out there are able to really bring it every time, but I'm going to have to work on getting ahead of guys and then being able to pump it up when I can.

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