Minneapolis — Nick Ramirez must’ve felt like he was being punked.
On Thursday he finally got the call he’d been waiting for since he was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2011. After eight years bouncing around the minor leagues, after being converted from power-hitting first baseman to pitcher, after being DFA’d by the Brewers and signed by the Tigers last offseason, he was, at age 29, finally going to the show.
And then Ramirez darn-near couldn’t get there.
“The last couple of days have been crazy,” he said. “Just all part of the journey, I guess.”
Ramirez, who had made two appearances with Triple-A Toledo after a strong start at Double-A Erie, was supposed to fly from Rochester, N.Y., to Minneapolis, with a layover in Newark. He was expected to get to the Tigers’ team hotel Thursday night.
But the flight in Rochester was delayed, causing him to miss his connection in Newark.
“I had to spend the night in Newark and fly out (Friday) morning,” Ramirez said. “United Airlines put me up in a hotel in the middle of downtown Newark. There were bars around every single window. It’s safe to say I didn’t leave the hotel.”
Given his unconventional path through the minor leagues, would you expect a direct, no fuss flight to the big leagues?
“Just looking back on my journey, it’s incredible,” he said. “When I signed, if you would’ve told me this is how it was going go, I would’ve told you I’m not doing it. But it’s all worth it now. This is unbelievable.”
This version of Ramirez, the one the Tigers hope can be a multiple-inning option out of the bullpen, is a soft-tossing lefty. His fastball will top out at 90 mph, but he has been able to use it effectively up in the strike zone to play off his money pitch — the change-up.
He struck out 20 in 14.1 innings at Erie before his promotion. At Toledo, though he gave up 12 hits and five runs (two earned), he still struck out 10.
“My dad never let me throw a curveball until high school,” Ramirez said. “So I always had to rely on that change-up. Ever since I got a feel for that, it’s always been my better pitch. Luckily it didn’t go away.”
The previous version of Ramirez, the one the Brewers drafted out of Cal State Fullerton, was a slugging, left-handed hitting first baseman. He hit 96 home runs and drove in 403 in eight minor-league seasons. But he also struck out 748 times.
So after the 2016 season, the Brewers, remembering that he was an effective closer in college, suggested he go back to pitching.
“The only thing it hurt was my ego,” Ramirez said. “I asked them not to take away hitting and they left that on the table. I could do both. But I had a nice transition into pitching. I had to go back to the foundation and learn how to throw again, rather than being an infielder on the mound.”
After a stint in the post-season instructional league in 2016, he was fully on-board with the conversion.
“Getting past that initial soreness — when I first started throwing again, I was like, ‘Something’s wrong,’” he said. “It hurts where it’s not supposed to hurt. But once I got past all that and I learned how to not do too much, don’t try to nibble and be too cute.
“When I started to attack hitters, that’s when it took off a little bit.”
Converting to pitching hasn’t worked for some — former Tiger Anthony Gose comes to mind. But, it’s been a career-saver for Ramirez.
“I should’ve signed as a pitcher,” he said with a smile.
All’s well that ends well, though.
“It was unbelievable walking in here,” he said. “The thing I was most in awe of was when I walked out onto the field. It was like, ‘Woah, so this is the big leagues. I got here.'”
Soto makes jump
It will be made official before the game, but left-handed pitching prospect Gregory Soto will join the Tigers as the 26th man and start the second game of Saturday's doubleheader. He walked into the Tigers’ clubhouse at 3:30 p.m. Friday.
“I didn’t see it coming,” he said through interpreter Carlos Guillen. “I never thought I was supposed to come up this quickly in the season.”
Soto had made three starts at Double-A Erie after missing the first 20 games on the suspended list. He has a 2.03 ERA with 12 strikeouts in 13.1 innings.
“I can just go by the reports, but he’s been throwing it well,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We have to have a starter and he’s the most available guy. He’s been pitching well.”
Asked about the difficulty of jumping from Double-A, Gardenhire said, "Double-A is a good league. They face all the top prospects. I've had it happen good and I've had it happen bad. It depends on how he handles it.
"If he can control his emotions, don't try to overthrow and do what it did to get here, he'll be fine. If he tries to throw it 98 mph and gets all out of whack, he'll probably have issues."
Around the horn
Left-hander Blaine Hardy (forearm strain) finished his rehab assignment Thursday, pitching two scoreless innings at Lakeland.
Gardenhire said he is expected to rejoin the team Saturday, though he might not be activated right away. Hardy wouldn’t be available to pitch before Sunday.