In his own estimation, Ryan Rupe was not a very good Major League Baseball pitcher, something the statistics bear out.
In a five-year career with Tampa and Boston (1999-2003), RHP Rupe compiled a 24-38 record, with a 5.85 ERA and 1.42 WHIP, working mostly as a starter. As you might expect, lefties slugged nicely against him (.502), but many righties fared well, too, as Jermaine Dye, Juan Gonzalez, Jeff Kent and Edgar Martinez all feasted on the 6-5 Texan, whose fastball rarely topped 88 mph.
Manny Ramirez, however, was a different story altogether. Ryan Rupe won't say it, but he basically owned the future Hall of Famer.
In 21 career at-bats against Rupe, Ramirez struck out 11 times, including his first two at-bats (in 2000) and nine out of his last 12 (in 2001 and 2002).
Rupe didn't face Ramirez in 2003. Why? Because the Texas A&M grad was the first player Theo Epstein signed when he became general manager of the Red Sox. Makes sense: If a pitcher in your own division is kryptonite to your best hitter, you might as well take him out of circulation.
So, what was the secret to Rupe's success? How'd a pitcher with a subpar fastball consistently strike out Manny Ramirez, arguably the best right-handed hitter of his generation?
"It ain't like I had a lot of stuff to get him out with, so my philosophy with Manny was try not to walk him and let him go ahead and swing away," says Rupe, 32, who last pitched in 2006 for the Marlins Triple-A team and now works for a natural gas and crude oil marketing firm in Houston. "What I remember, it wasn't one certain pitch. It was fastballs, sliders and change-ups. I wasn't going to trick him. He was too good of a hitter to even attempt to do that, so I kind of went right after him and it seemed to work sometimes."
With few exceptions, it worked all the time. Ramirez managed only four hits in his career against Rupe—two singles, a double and a home run.
The home run, surrendered April 6, 2001, was Ramirez's first as a member of the Red Sox. Runners were on first and second, and Ramirez jumped on the first pitch and jacked it for a three-run shot. With that, he had now gone six straight at-bats without striking out against Rupe. But had he really figured him out? No: Ramirez whiffed the next four times—twice swinging, twice looking.
"I never really stayed in a pattern with him," Rupe says. "Everything I threw, I still tried to throw for a strike. A lot of guys get ahead of him and then start bouncing a bunch of strikeout pitches. I always figured with him, if he's going to take (the pitch), I wanted it to be a strike."
He only walked Ramirez on one occasion—with runners on second and third and one out. Was it an intentional walk? The statistics say it wasn't. But Rupe and the Rays led 4-2 at the time, Ramirez represented the go-ahead run and Dante Bichette, another right-handed hitter, was on deck, so it's not unreasonable to think Rupe was being uncharacteristically cautious with Manny.
It didn't pay off, because Bichette hit a grand slam over the Green Monster.
"With Manny, hopefully there weren't a lot guys on base when he came up and I would attack him," Rupe says. "I knew that he would take, take, take if I tried to nibble, and I'd just end up walking him two or three times a game. So with a guy like that who's a free swinger, or at least he was when I was pitching, I would just go, 'Here it is, hit it.' I'd try to get ahead in the count pretty early, and then I'd try to throw something for a strike, where he's looking for me to nibble, nibble and then come out 2-2, 3-2 in his favor."
"And I would try to throw my off-speed for a strike and it was successful. I'm surprised more people haven't really tried it. It was one of those odd things, because it's not like I was too good a pitcher, I'll tell ya that."
He certainly had his moments.
In 2001, after limiting the Angels to two earned runs and 10 hits in 23 and one-third innings (over three starts), left fielder Garret Anderson said of Rupe, who'd just struck him out in two straight at-bats: "All he throws is changeups, and he has a good one. He knows he can't throw a fastball by me in the zone, so all he throws is changeups. Eventually, I'll make an adjustment."
And he did. When Anderson, a lefty, faced Rupe that July (for the last time in their careers), he hit a home run.
Ramirez, for his part, never seems to have made a lasting adjustment.
"With Manny it was different," Rupe says. "He never really took much from me. He was always ready to swing. I don't know if he had trouble seeing the ball in some situations. I went right after him, and I think some pitchers might have tried to nibble with him a little bit. He has a decent eye when he wants to."
So when the Red Sox signed him for the 2003 season, did Rupe take the opportunity to tease Ramirez, his new teammate, about their track record against each other?
"No, I really didn't bring it up much," Rupe says, laughing. "At that time I probably figured I'm gonna face this guy again, sooner or later, so no, at that time I was just trying to hang on (in the major leagues)."
He spent most of that 2003 season at Triple-A Pawtucket, pitching four games for the Red Sox and starting once—against his hometown Houston Astros, his last major league start.