J.C. Ramirez showing why Phillies wanted him in Lee deal

Going into today's game, J.C. Ramirez is 4-0 with a 1.03 ERA for Reading.
Going into today's game, J.C. Ramirez is 4-0 with a 1.03 ERA for Reading. (RALPH TROUT / Reading Phillies)
Posted: May 05, 2011

TWO WEEKS.

Two weeks was all J.C. Ramirez could afford to spend with his family in Nicaragua after the most turbulent season of his promising pitching career.

Two weeks, then back to Clearwater, Fla., back to work, rebuilding strength in his right hip, surgically repaired in September.

The way things have gone since, Ramirez might never spend more than 2 weeks at home again.

"It was kind of a blessing," Ramirez said.

Instead of returning to his homeland and enjoying the modest fruits of his fame, Ramirez, instead, worked out every day.

A 6-3, bottom-heavy righthander, Ramirez, 22, feared that surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip would sap from him the power he needs to fire 95-mph fastballs. So, gladly, he threw himself into the offseason rehab program the Phillies prescribed.

More gladly, it should be noted, than he had embraced the Phillies' offseason workout recommendations and in-season maintenance programs. Last year, new to the organization as part of the trade that sent Cliff Lee to Seattle, Ramirez experienced a bit of culture shock. He was softer, and, in the wake of the controversial trade, he was worried.

Not now.

Ramirez, a lean and imposing 225 pounds, enters this afternoon's start at Double A Reading with a 4-0 record, a 1.03 earned run average and the sort of professional assuredness that makes his ascension a matter less of "whether" than of "when."

"Now," said Phillies player development czar Chuck LaMar, "everybody's starting to see the J.C. Ramirez we traded for."

Ramirez is glad to display it.

"I deserve this. I worked hard. I deserve this," Ramirez said.

Don't get the impression that Ramirez is an entitled, cocky kid. He is everything but that. He is self-effacing, self-critical, self-aware; he is a chronic smiler, a clubhouse jokester and a thoroughly pleasant young man.

A more focused young man than a year ago, perhaps. In a clever coincidence, his ability to better focus stemmed from the man whose excellence caused Ramirez so many problems last year.

"Cliff Lee was great with me this spring," Ramirez said. "He's a good guy. I learned a lot from him. Talked to him at spring training. About mechanics. New pitches. Confidence. Focus in the game.

"He told me to be myself. Be confident. Take everything seriously."

Especially the physical-fitness aspect.

Lee's devotion to fitness is a thing of legend. Ramirez witnessed that and threw himself even more fully into his regimen - to the point he experienced back soreness in late March, probably from too much running.

"He's been fabulous," Reading manager Mark Parent said. "I ask him every day if he's done his workout. He told me to stop asking him."

Because of the hip injury, Ramirez was unable to run for much of the second half of 2010. As such, he pitched the last portion of 2010 without his leg strength, and foundered, especially after the fourth inning.

He followed a run of 11 respectable starts at Class A Clearwater with a 13-start display in Reading in which he went 3-4 with a 5.45 ERA and surrendered 11 homers.

Between Lee's shadow, the new surroundings and the injury, Ramirez barely resembled the pitcher who was ranked as Seattle's No. 5 prospect in 2009.

"It's tough to pitch in pain," Parent said.

"I do know that a lot of young men would not have even pitched the second half of last year," LaMar said. "He gutted it out. Competed extremely well."

He competed, if anxiously.

"I was trying to show them who I am. Every outing," Ramirez said. "There was a little bit of pressure."

"He's a different guy this year," Parent said.

Indeed. Suddenly, the fastball is singing. His changeup - the pitch the Phillies told him to develop last season - actually is working better than his slider, which, at times, can bite like any major leaguer's.

"The hip being stronger results in a few mechanical changes. His direction to the plate. It's really helped him create angles," Reading pitching coach Bob Milacki said. "When the secondary pitches get better, he'll be really good. He's living off his fastball . . . and his fastball has been pretty good."

Which, of course, makes the changeup, thrown in the low 80s, all the more effective . . . when it isn't telegraphed.

"The arm action is the same, but he slows down on it sometimes," Milacki said. As for the slider, "He babies it. It's a get-over pitch right now, instead of a finishing pitch."

"He's made tremendous strides with his fastball command," LaMar said. "And if he's holding his best slider, he needs to start throwing it."

The sooner Ramirez commands the slider and changeup, the sooner he moves up, LaMar said. The Phillies plan on developing him as a starter, but his velocity, his slider and his trouble-free arm make him an enticing option as a reliever, which, LaMar said, would get him to the big leagues faster.

The slider was a finishing pitch the past two seasons, when he struck out 236 batters in 52 starts. He has only six strikeouts - in 26 innings - this season

"I want strikeouts. I'm working on my slider," Ramirez said. "I'm practicing the changeup too much. I'm forgetting a little bit about my slider."

The strikeouts can wait, for now. Rich Dubee, pitching coach for the big club, instructed Ramirez this spring to pitch more to contact, to throw more strikes earlier in the game.

Batters are hitting .187 against him, 90 points lower than his past two seasons - just the sort of numbers that could lead to the September call-up Ramirez so covets.

"He wants to be a major leaguer," Parent said. "And he's showing it."

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