Most everything about A.J. Ramos is unconventional, and the diminutive Marlins reliever with the extra-long middle finger on his pitching hand likes it that way.
He enjoys “twisting people’s words,” as he calls it as much as he relishes twisting his way out of bases-loaded jams with the game’s outcome in the balance, something Ramos made routine last season.
“Someone will come up to me and call me a good pitcher, and I’ll say, ‘No, I’m a damn good pitcher,’ ” said a grinning Ramos in the Marlins’ clubhouse at Roger Dean Stadium before Monday’s game against the Mets.
He doesn’t mind some innocent verbal sparring or a more serious battle of wills on the mound. For the 5-10 right-hander, the two kind of go hand in hand.
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“I’ve always been the type of guy who goes right after people,” Ramos said. “It’s not being afraid of anything. That’s what makes me who I am.”
It takes a special sort to be under control when potential chaos is closing in, and Ramos is exactly that type.
“He’s the ultimate gamer,” Marlins closer Steve Cishek said. “It’s his mentality. He’s an absolute competitor. He’s going to give it everything he has.”
Maybe that trait comes from being a 21st-round pick, where the Marlins drafted him in 2009. Or from being smaller than most late-inning daredevils. Or from being determined not to fail. Maybe it’s a little bit of all of that for a guy with a cut fastball Cishek says “drives hitters crazy.”
Last season, Ramos would seemingly drive his teammates and manager crazy before escaping disaster and setting things up for Cishek. Walks would happen. Runners would clog the bases. Then Ramos would rescue himself.
“When the pressure gets higher I’m able to perform at another level. I thrive in those situations,” Ramos said. “It’s always been that way for me, going back to Little League.”
It’s a gift, but Ramos doesn’t want that 2014 trend to bleed into this season.
“I don’t want to give everyone a heart attack,” he said.
Theatrics aside, what Ramos gave the Marlins last year was a chance to win games and a chance for Cishek to close them out. Ramos gave up only one home run in 64 innings. He went 7-0 with a 2.11 ERA, allowed only 36 hits and piled up 73 strikeouts.
“That’s cool, but how many walks in those 64 innings pitched?” Ramos asked, knowing the answer was way too many.
The number of walks was 43, the same amount he walked the season before but in 16 less innings than he threw in 2013, which was his first year of extended time in the majors. Only 16 of those runners scored last season, but the 28-year-old with aspirations of one day being a closer knows he probably can’t keep living on the edge. He wants less walks and better control of his inside pitches.
“I’m still learning the game,” he said. “People tend to figure you out.”
What Ramos still can’t figure out to this day is how his right middle finger became so much longer than his pointer or ring fingers. He said he has used the elongated finger to put more action on his pitches.
“I like it. I’ll take it,” said Ramos, again grinning before adding that the finger also causes some of his pitches to go where he doesn’t want them to go.
Ramos tip-toed his way through tenuous situations last year, helping Cishek have the chance to get some of those career-high 39 saves. But Ramos still doesn’t feel the eighth inning is automatically his. He points to right-hander Bryan Morris and veteran lefty Mike Dunn as sharing the load.
“We all get lefties out,” said Ramos, who is 1-0 with a 1.50 ERA and 10 strikeouts in five appearances this spring.
But this is also the same straightforward guy who calls himself “unique.” He’s not going to shy away from wanting more for himself and, in turn, a team that expects to contend this year.
“He’s a big-game pitcher,” Cishek said. “He’s a bulldog.”
A bundle of talent, intensity and confidence.
“People overlook me because of my stature,” Ramos said. “That doesn’t matter when I go on the mound.”