MILWAUKEE – It’s only a coincidence that Chicago Cubs reliever Neil Ramirez is reading “The Closer,” the book by former New York Yankees great Mariano Rivera. Ramirez is getting a trial run this weekend doing Rivera’s old job for the Cubs, as regular closer Hector Rondon is on paternity leave.
“That guy has a ton of knowledge,” Ramirez said Saturday morning of Rivera. “He was the best for a reason. As a reliever now, trying to pick up something from one of the best guys that’s done it, it’s a great book to read.”
Ramirez was a starter up until the Cubs acquired him last season in the deal that sent Matt Garza to the Texas Rangers. In fact, he was the player to be named later, so he came to the organization weeks after more heralded players like C.J. Edwards and Mike Olt. But so far he’s made a big impression on the Cubs and pitching coach Chris Bosio, who suggested he pitch out of the bullpen this year to save his arm. Ramirez battled injuries a season ago and was only part of the trade when he got healthy.
“Everybody was on board with it,” Bosio said of having Ramirez pitch in relief. “He’s done a great job in our bullpen. He’s been real consistent. The biggest thing is his health.”
Ramirez has impressed with a mid-90s fastball and a nasty slider that has had tons of movement. He’s struck out 19 in 11 2/3 innings since being called up in late April and sports a 0.77 ERA in 13 appearances. And he’s walked just four. That’s probably the reason more than any he’s been entrusted with being the closer this weekend. Cubs relievers have had their issues with walks. But not Ramirez.
“I’m the kind of guy that wants to take every situation the same no matter what,” he said of being the closer now. “If you make it more than it is, then you get caught up in that.”
Maybe that’s why the Cubs didn’t even inform him he might finish off a close game if they have a lead against the Brewers. He made his debut in April where he could pitch this weekend – and his first career strikeout came against former MVP Ryan Braun when he blew a fastball by him. Ramirez doesn’t back down.
“It’s a good feeling they would trust me going into a big situation,” Ramirez said. “Part of that is me just going out there and just doing the job.”
Middle relief and possibly closing are his roles this year, but could he return to starting? The Cubs are short on legitimate candidates for the rotation as they head into the next phase of their rebuilding plan. Ramirez’s stuff dictates him getting a chance. He hasn’t even thrown a changeup yet, instead sticking with a fastball, curve and slider so far. Bosio didn’t dismiss the notion of Ramirez starting again.
“We have some options with (Justin) Grimm and Ramirez,” he said. “It’s going to depend on what we do in the offseason. But the biggest thing for us is it gives us options moving forward.”
Bosio likes the idea of a player like Ramirez working his way back to starting through the bullpen. He can do it at his own pace without being thrust into a role. Even a decent winner in the minors -- as a starter -- can ease into that role in the majors.
“You are going to learn to pitch with more urgency,” Bosio said. “I think there is a lot of merit to that. I’m a firm believer in that. I see the possibility of those guys being starters down the road.”
Ramirez might have to start reading books by starters, or, even better yet, he could purchase one by John Smoltz, who did both jobs in a Hall of Fame-type career. For now, Rivera will have to do.
“He talks about treating each situation the same in the book,” Ramirez said. “He never let the situation dictate how he pitched. It was always the same, no matter what.”