By Shannon Drayer
ANAHEIM, Calif. – Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon raised eyebrows 10 days ago when instead of praising a four-hit, no-run performance by Erasmo Ramirez, he pointed to an area of concern. McClendon didn't like what he was seeing in Ramirez's 0-2 pitches, and didn't hold back when describing them.
"They're horse (expletive) pitches," he exclaimed. "Everybody was all excited about his start, 'Oh, he did such a great job,' but he made a lot of horse (expletive) pitches on 0-2."
Strong words followed by even stronger ones.
"Hanging sliders in the strike zone on 0-2 isn't good. You don't get those back. If you can't execute the pitch then we have to find someone that can," McClendon said. "Once that light goes on you don't get those pitches back. Miguel Cabrera is not going to miss that pitch. Prince Fielder isn't going to miss that pitch. You have to make that pitch."
This was by no means a new frustration with Ramirez. The staff last year saw the same thing and Ramirez himself has admitted that he has trouble throwing pitches that are not strikes. McClendon wasn't going to let him get away with it, however. The message was sent to the pitcher loud and clear well before it was sent to the media. Turns out it was sent to someone else as well.
In Tuesday's lineup notes I noted that I didn't think it was coincidence that John Buck was catching Ramirez. I had a feeling that McClendon may have put the task on Buck to get Ramirez to perform. In our on-field interview after the game, Buck said that the key to Ramirez's success that night was his ability to bury his out-pitch.
"I found myself blocking the ball, which he was having trouble with early this spring and obviously on film last year," Buck said.
It was a quick but necessary transformation for Ramirez, according to Buck.
"I kind of said, 'Look, I am getting tired of getting yelled at too by Lloyd,' " he said. " 'Let's head on down to the bullpen and I will block every single one of your two-strike sliders in the dirt. I will get to work blocking it and you throw them.' I think it was something that Lloyd did intentionally to really sink the importance of it into his mind."
Ramirez was ecstatic about his success.
"I feel better 0-2, 1-2, throwing the pitches in the dirt or else to the strike zone," he said at his locker after the game. "I love it. I love how it looks right now. The hitters know I throw all strikes but when they see me throwing in the dirt 0-2, 1-2 it makes them think a little bit more."
The work with Buck in the bullpen helped.
"He understands what I need, where he needs to put (the glove). He knows he needs to put the glove almost to the dirt. 'I want to glove that ball. Don't worry about it, Just throw it.' That's the kind of security, you know. Be sure you feel confidence to throw it and that's what I feel in the game," Ramirez said.
The success no doubt will reinforce the change. Ramirez may have been happy to put up outing after outing of no-walk, four-run performances, but now he has seen the difference. He still didn't walk anyone Tuesday night but he threw better strikes, strikes with a purpose, not strikes just aimed not to be a ball. For whatever reason, McClendon got through to him and the Mariners may now have an improved pitcher.