ANAHEIM, Calif. -- On an eventful day featuring Brad Penny’s first pitch and Howie Kendrick’s last at-bat, Jason Bay’s juggling skills and Jonathan Papelbon’s tightrope act, Ramon Ramirez all but vanished. He entered quickly and left quietly, reveling in the relatively modest and anonymous life of a middle man.
"We always joke that all he wants to do is work out, eat when it’s time to eat, and then throw the [heck] out of the baseball,’’ Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis said of Ramirez following the Red Sox’ pulsating 5-4 win over the Los Angeles Angels today at Angel Stadium. "He’ll probably be here for a long time if he keeps throwing the ball well, just because of his attitude and the way he goes about his business.’’
On the mound and off.
For the moment, the Red Sox are interested in results far more than anything else. Five games in, the 2009 season already is starting to feel like a grind. The Red Sox now have bookended victories of 5-3 and 5-4 to go around losses of 7-2, 4-3 and 6-3, producing an average of fewer than four runs per game and putting additional pressure on a pitching staff expected to carry more of the burden than in years past.
The good news? The man who would be Coco Crisp is off to a fabulous start, pitching 1 2/3 scoreless innings today to provide the invaluable bridge between Penny and Papelbon. In Game 5 of the regular season, you simply cannot say enough about what Ramirez did for the Red Sox. With Justin Masterson unavailable and with the Red Sox potentially facing a bitter 1-4 start, manager Terry Francona summoned Ramirez for the start of the seventh inning after the Red Sox had taken a 4-3 lead. It marked the first time in three appearances this year that Francona allowed Ramirez to pitch with what the manager likes to call "responsibility.’’
The Red Sox bullpen appears to be a deep and talented lot this season, but at this stage, we all know how Francona generally handles his relief corps. There are pitchers to whom he will entrust a lead, others to whom he will not. Righthanded or lefthanded, you have to earn the right to pitch with the game on the line. Ramirez now has made three official appearances since the offseason trade that brought him from Kansas City for Crisp, and the results speak for themselves.
So far, opponents are 1 for 13 against him with three strikeouts and no walks. Already, with each passing day, Ramirez’s stock appears to be rising.
"Tremendous,’’ Francona said quite succinctly when asked to assess Ramirez's performance in the win over the Angels.
Entering this spring, the Red Sox had high hopes for Ramirez, despite some indication that he came with certain limitations. Last season, Ramirez held righthanded batters to a microscopic .153 average, but lefthanders hit an even .300 against him. The Red Sox saw those numbers as somewhat misleading, largely because they felt Ramirez had the necessary ammunition (specifically, a killer changeup) to consistently deal with lefties.
Fittingly, Ramirez’s changeup is subtle, at least in comparison to his fastball, which hovers near 91-92 miles per hour. Though Ramirez’s change seems to hit the plate at a robust 87-88 mph -- a relatively minimal contrast to his fastball -- hitters are consistently confounded by it, in part because he sells it with fastball arm action, in part because it has late movement and depth.
Whatever the explanation, the pitch works. And Francona, as much as catcher Jason Varitek or Ramirez himself, is developing great confidence in it.
As proof, Francona today allowed Ramirez to face the lefthanded-hitting Bobby Abreu with one out and the bases empty in the eighth despite the fact that lefthander Hideki Okajima was up and ready in the bullpen. The manager was rewarded with a 3-4-1 groundout that required the effort of three players -- Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Ramirez -- to record what Francona believed was one of the biggest outs of the game.
Ranging to his right, a diving Youkilis knocked the ball down. A heady Pedroia then picked it up and whipped it to Ramirez, who did exactly what he was supposed to do and resisted giving up on the play.
Abreu was out by a fraction of a step.
"If anybody’s one step late, they’ve got a guy on and here we go,’’ Francona said.
Added the manager of his decision to stick with Ramirez against Abreu, "He was throwing the ball very well. The only time I ever think it’s an advantage with Bobby [to bring in a lefty] is if it’s a lefty he hasn’t seen before. I think I know that just from having [managed] him [in Philadelphia]. I just thought that Ramon was throwing well and we knew were going to go with [Papelbon] anyway, so rather than burn two pitchers [including Okajima] we’d just burn one.’’
Consequently, with two now out, Francona summoned closer Papelbon, who retired Vladimir Guerrero on two pitches to conclude the eighth before a ninth inning that was nothing short of, well, hellacious. Papelbon threw 37 pitches in the final frame, walking two in an inning for the first time since the end of the 2007 season. (He walked just seven batters all of last year.) Nonetheless, the Red Sox escaped with a one-run victory that earned the closer his second save and Penny his first career American League win.
By then, Ramirez was gone from a game in which he played a critical role. Shortly thereafter, he similarly slipped out a back door of the clubhouse unnoticed, executing an appropriate escape for someone who pitches in the middle of the game.
"He’s a real quiet kid and he likes to compete,’’ Francona said of Ramirez, 27. "He likes to pitch every day -- and he’s not going to pitch every day -- but I think you’re seen what he can do for us the last few days. He can pitch.’’
And, apparently, he can pitch with responsibility.
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