Lakeland, Fla. — It felt like a sucker punch, but it didn’t knock him down.
Left-handed reliever Nick Ramirez, a converted first baseman, was not in big-league camp with the Tigers last year. Still, he was promoted from Triple-A Toledo on May 11 and wound up pitching 79.2 innings, more than any other reliever on the club.
He pitched 27 innings in his first 10 games, that’s how durable he was. He ended up going 5-4 with a 4.07 ERA, with opponents hitting .247 against him.
And yet the Tigers, to clear roster space to protect several players from the Rule 5 draft, designated him for assignment on Nov. 2.
“Yeah, I was caught off guard,” said Ramirez, 30, who signed back on a minor-league deal in December. “I thought I’d put myself in a good spot. These things happen. It’s the part of baseball that sucks. But it kind of gave me an edge to work harder and get back.
“I think I am coming into camp in better shape and ready to go. Ready to get my spot back.”
After Ramirez cleared waivers, he was free to sign with any team. He never sought any other option.
“We didn’t even bother reaching out,” he said. “There’s so much opportunity here. We thought coming back here would probably be best for me and my career. Especially not having to start over with another organization.
“Here they know what I can do and how often I can do it. I think it was beneficial for me to return.”
Ramirez has minor-league options left, so even if he doesn’t win a job in camp, there is a good chance he could find himself back in Detroit sooner than later.
“I just need to be able to stay consistent,” Ramirez said. “I had a couple of good outings and I had a couple of bad ones. It’s a matter of being able to differentiate the splits between that, staying consistent, executing pitches and knowing I don’t have to do anything more.
“I don’t have to go away from what my game plan is and what my strengths are. Most of the time you can make hitters get themselves out.”
Ramirez has an elite change-up and when he first came up he baffled unsuspecting hitters with it. Once the hitters adjusted, though, Ramirez had to refashion his approach.
“The first year in the big leagues is going to be a learning curve for anyone,” he said. “When I first got to the big leagues, that was when pitching was fun. No one had a scouting report and I was able to just rely on the change-up.
“Once the scouting report was out, you had big-league hitters who had a plan and they were going to sit on pitches, even if it was 0-2, didn’t matter. They are willing to give up that at-bat just to get that one pitch. That’s when I knew, ‘Hey, you need to learn how to pitch. This is a different animal.’”
Hitters still swung and missed 42.5 percent of the time on his change-up and hit just .216 against it. But it wasn’t until he started mixing in more cutters and four-seam fastballs that he could keep them from sitting on it.
“I felt like I could get guys off the change-up with fastballs,” he said. “Fastballs in and fastballs up. That opened up the plate again.”
Right now, there are only a few spots locked up in the Tigers bullpen — closer Joe Jimenez, and set-up men Gregory Soto (lefty) and Buck Farmer. Based on their performances last year, Jose Cisnero and David McKay are probably somewhat secure.
Also, the Tigers took right-hander Rony Garcia with the first pick of the Rule 5 draft. They have to keep him the entire season or else offer him back to the Yankees.
That leaves two open spots. Ramirez and veteran lefty non-roster invitee Hector Santiago are in the mix, as are several right-handers including veteran non-roster invitee Alex Wilson and rookies Bryan Garcia and John Schreiber, who both made their big-league debuts last season.
Cisneros, McKay, Bryan Garcia and Schreiber all have minor-league options remaining.
The field could get more crowded if the Tigers decide to move one of their starting pitchers to the bullpen — a group that includes lefty Tyler Alexander, and right-handers Beau Burrows and Kyle Funkhouser.
Although Major League Baseball formally approved the new rule to require all pitchers to face a minimum of three batters (or pitch until the inning is over), there is still some concern over possible unintended consequences.
Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire may have discovered a loophole.
“There are still questions that I have,” he said Thursday. “We tried talking about them at the winter meetings, but we didn’t get a whole lot of time. I asked a couple of questions — If I put up four fingers (for an intentional walk), does that count as a batter faced?
“I still don’t know. I never got a straight answer.”
According to MLB, the rule states pitchers have to face three slots in the batting order. Thus, an intentional walk would count as a batter faced.
Using the intentional walk would be one way, albeit a risky way, for a manager to adhere to the rule but still get a favorable matchup.
“There is strategy involved here and they are kind of taking some things out of your hand,” Gardenhire said. “But, the game is changing all the time and we have to live with it.”
On the shelf
Right-handed starting pitcher Shao-Ching Chiang, in camp as a non-roster invitee, has been unable to participate in the bullpen sessions. Gardenhire said the Taiwanese-born Chiang, who spent the last seven years in the Indians system, was experiencing pain in his “side and back” when he throws.