Give him a (pitching) hand: Ramirez back on mound

February 28th, 2017

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- A year ago, Nick Ramirez was a 26-year-old preparing to grind through a third straight season as a Double-A first baseman. Now, he's bidding to be the second coming of Brooks Kieschnick, the power-hitting relief pitcher who found a niche with the Brewers during their last rebuilding phase.

Ramirez, a left-handed hitter and pitcher, has been perfect in a pair of appearances for the big league Brewers. He struck out the side in an exhibition against the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Friday, then struck out the first two Texas Rangers he faced Monday before inducing a game-ending flyout to center field in a 5-0 win.

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"He let a guy put the ball in play," Brewers manager Craig Counsell deadpanned, "so we're not going to bring him back."

To the contrary, Ramirez has opened some eyes in the organization since adding pitching back to his repertoire last July. He was a two-way player in college at Cal State-Fullerton, winning Big West Conference player of the year honors in 2011 as a first baseman and lights-out closer who went 16-for-16 in save chances, but he gave up pitching after the Brewers made him a fourth-round Draft pick that year.

Ramirez rose fast in Milwaukee's Minor League ranks, getting to Double-A by 2014, but then hit a wall. At the organization's urging, Ramirez got back on a mound beginning last July, working closely with Biloxi pitching coach Chris Hook to relearn his mechanics.

"When I first started, it looked like an infielder throwing off the mound," Ramirez said. "Because I hadn't done it in five years, I wasn't using my lower half. I wasn't using my body. It was a slow progression to get back to pitching shape."

The project continued into the fall instructional league, with Ramirez gradually simplifying his delivery. It is not a complete conversion; Ramirez continues to take batting practice and infield work to stay sharp as a hitter. The idea is to be a two-way threat, a la Kieschnick, who made 74 relief appearances and hit to the tune of an .837 OPS in 2003-04.

Ramirez resumed this spring in the Brewers' Minor League minicamp. Against the Rangers, Ramirez pitched at 90-91 mph with his fastball and also showed a curveball and changeup.

The changeup impressed Counsell most.

"Somehow my pitches got better with a five-year hiatus," Ramirez said. "I don't know how that happened, but I'm happy with how it's going."

Committing to the switch, Ramirez said, was an easy decision.

"It wasn't hard, because I'm not losing anything," he said. "I only have stuff to gain out of this. If I can compete and get outs and contribute to a big league team winning baseball games, then that's what I'm going to do."

"It's impressive," Counsell said. "If you keep pitching like that, there's opportunity, for sure."