SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Those hot, draining bullpen practice sessions between starts are where Erasmo Ramirez likes to plan his escape route.
Not every young pitcher uses bullpen workout time to hone the fine art of getting out of in-game jams. But Mariners starter Ramirez has never taken the easy way out of anything, so making life purposely harder on himself is just an extension of how the once-underrated minor-leaguer from Nicaragua is trying to stay in the majors.
Ramirez will wait until he’s good and tired and then, rather than mailing things in with a plethora of fastballs, he’ll force himself to throw all of his pitches so imaginary hitters trying to keep a rally going can’t hone in on any particular offering. He’ll simulate working to both right-handed and left-handed hitters with men on base and force himself to hit his target.
“Sometimes, once or twice I’ll miss a spot,” he said. “That can be like a double or a homer. So, I start over.”
Ramirez’s planning paid off Saturday in a 5-2 win over the Colorado Rockies at Salt River Fields. The Rockies pounded Ramirez for eight hits — five of them doubles — over six innings, but came away with just two runs because Ramirez was able to settle down and execute when the heat was on.
The heat is on Ramirez in bigger ways than this game.
Ramirez finished his 2012 debut season with four strong starts in September after missing two months with an elbow injury and has followed up with a solid spring. But he’s competing with four other pitchers for two spots in the team’s starting rotation and one of those may already be all-but-taken.
Sources have said veteran starter Jon Garland has a contractual clause that will enable him to leave the Mariners as a free agent late next week if he is not assured of making the club. Such clauses can be standard for veterans on the bubble.
Garland has attracted interest from other teams, so the existence of such a clause would force the Mariners to decide on him well in advance of the end of camp.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge confirmed after Saturday’s game — without divulging any player names — that contractual issues will force the team to make some rotation decision well before camp ends.
“There are a couple,” Wedge said of players with such clauses. “Not that I’m going to specify on, but there are a couple that will come up before spring training ends, yes.”
Wedge was pleased how Ramirez — who hadn’t given up an earned run this spring until Saturday — recovered after giving up some big hits. Of the five doubles, four of them were scorched by left-handed hitters after Ramirez kept trying, and failing, to pitch inside.
But the only time Ramirez gave up multiple hits came in the first inning. After that, as hard as some of the doubles were hit, Ramirez did not allow the rallies to continue.
“He was a little bit up a bit early,” Wedge said. “They got to him a little bit, but other than that, that’s something you always like to see in particular with your starting pitchers. His stuff continued to get better. He was more consistently down. He was using all of his pitches later in the ballgame, and was obviously very efficient. He made a few mistakes, but he righted them.”
Ramirez admitted to some anxiousness, given the state of the competition. Besides Garland, he’s up against Blake Beavan — who has a huge start Sunday against the Texas Rangers — Jeremy Bonderman and Class AA prospect Brandon Maurer.
There were times Saturday when he’d jump ahead of hitters, then miss his spots because he was throwing too hard and trying to impress the team by blowing the hitter away with a third strike.
“Sometimes yeah,” he said. “Because you’re trying to look better than the other ones and show ‘OK, I’m ready, I’ve worked a lot, I want the job.’ But you have to be sure to do it the right way and not just rush and try to show that you’re somebody you aren’t.”
Instead, he thought of his bullpen sessions and forced himself to execute the next pitch.
“I tried to come back and be myself and not do more than I can,” he said. “I just have to execute pitches. I don’t know why I waited until I gave up the doubles, but I did execute pitches.”
And in the end, he made it through six innings and bought the Mariners time before home runs by Kendrys Morales and Mike Jacobs helped propel them to victory. That’s two innings longer than Bonderman lasted in a solid outing Friday afternoon and three frames more than Garland, who got lit-up by The Netherlands on Friday night.
But the only part Ramirez is really in control of is what he does on the mound.
“I’m working hard,” he said, “so I can make their decision a little tough.”