FORT MYERS, Fla. -- On April 11, 1997, a 7-year-old New Jersey boy went to his first major league baseball game, at Yankee Stadium, where the Yankees were playing the Oakland Athletics in their home opener. That's when he first laid eyes on his baseball hero, Derek Jeter.
Almost 17 years later, 24-year-old Anthony Ranaudo said here Friday, Jeter remains his favorite Yankee. And he can't imagine how cool it would be, now that Jeter has announced his retirement, to face his idol in his final season.
"Jeter was my guy all the way," Ranaudo said. "It's kind of weird, thinking I might get a chance to face him in his last year. They end at Fenway, too."
For that to happen, of course, Ranaudo first has to make it to the big leagues, a quest that he has renewed in earnest this spring, receiving his first invitation to big league camp and on Friday afternoon striking out four batters in two scoreless innings in a start against the Minnesota Twins.
Ranaudo threw 24 pitches, 19 for strikes, sticking primarily with his fastball while throwing a couple of curveballs and a changeup. His performance was easily the highlight of Boston's 8-2 loss to Minnesota on a day when the entire squad was introduced in pregame ceremonies.
"I thought he was impressive," Sox manager John Farrell said. "Three pitches for strikes, was aggressive through the strike zone, and when he leveraged his fastball downhill, he was able to generate some swings and misses. A pretty impressive two innings here."
Ranaudo grew up in Jackson, N.J., which is about a half-hour's drive on the Jersey Shore from Monmouth Beach, the childhood home of Farrell, another Jersey native. Ranaudo's high school, St. Rose, was located in Belmar.
"I spent a lot of time in Belmar growing up," said Farrell, the son of a lobster fisherman. "That's where my dad kept his boat."
Ranaudo was identified as a prospect as far back as his sophomore year at St. Rose, where he threw back-to-back no-hitters and in the state championship game threw a two-hit shutout while hitting a two-run home run. He was drafted out of high school in the 11th round by Texas, but elected to go to LSU, where after pitching the Tigers to a College World Series title in 2009, he was regarded as the top college pitching prospect in the country.
But that's when, not for the first time, injuries made hash of his plans. An elbow strain sidelined him for weeks as a junior, his performance suffered, and many teams lost interest in making him a high-round draft pick. Theo Epstein and the Sox were not one of them, however, taking Ranaudo with the 39th pick overall in the 2010 draft, and their confidence appeared justified when Ranaudo, pitching for the Brewster Whitecaps in the Cape Cod League, went 3-0 in five starts in which he did not allow an earned run and struck out 31 batters in 29 2/3 innings.
That performance landed him a $2.55 million signing bonus with the Red Sox. He was fast-tracking his way through the Sox system until 2012, when a groin injury limited him to nine starts and also wreaked havoc with his pitching mechanics, causing a drop in his velocity.
But Ranaudo rebounded with a strong season, one in which he struck out 127 batters in 140 innings. He didn't make the same jump to the big leagues as Drake Britton and Brandon Workman, with whom he shared an apartment in Portland last spring, but he did finish the year in Triple-A Pawtucket, where he went 3-1 with a 2.97 ERA in six games (five starts).
"The progression I made last year was huge for me, not only from a physical standpoint but a confidence standpoint," he said. "Gaining 15, 20 pounds, going through a whole year healthy without any injuries, pitching 150 innings -- those were the things that had to change. Obviously, it wasn't working before.
"But the fastball [velocity] kind of crept back up, which all goes together with confidence. Pitching 150 innings gives me a great mindset to pitch 175 to 180 innings at whatever level that might be. Hopefully at the end of the year I'll be putting myself in a position to be called up and help the team, doing the same things that Drake Britton and Brandon Workman did."
Ranaudo may not be the golden child prospect he once was when he first signed with the Red Sox, but his dream scenario of facing Jeter this season is hardly far-fetched. He is among the mix of young pitchers (Henry Owens, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Matt Barnes) hoping to duplicate what Workman and Britton were able to do in 2013.
"One of the things that has made an impact on him is the increased tempo inside of his delivery," Farrell said Friday. "And it's allowed him to get his release point consistently, with all three of his pitches. You look at his profile, the physical package (he's listed as 6-7, 230), he's got everything you're looking for in a starting pitcher, with power stuff and the ability to pitch innings. Provided that health, which he was able to get through last year with no time missed due to injury, time will tell what the ultimate performance will be. He's a very good prospect."
There are 13 pitchers on the Red Sox roster this spring who have faced Jeter. Anthony Ranaudo hopes to increase that number by at least one.