LOS ANGELES—On a cool autumn day in November 2007, righthander Noe Ramirez, then a senior at Alhambra (Calif.) High, threw a bullpen session for the benefit of any interested scouts. Two showed up: myself and Sergio Brown, assistant coach and intrepid recruiter for Cal State Fullerton.
For a rail-thin and gangly youngster, Ramirez threw well but did not display early-round draft stuff: 86-88 fastball, nice 70-72 curve, 76 change. Brown was smart enough to offer Ramirez a scholarship on the spot. Few if any scouts saw Ramirez in his senior year. In fact, one laughed and stated to me, “I’m not going all the way out there to see a guy who throws 87!”
After his sensational performance Friday night in the opening game of the Los Angeles Super Regional, Ramirez, now a college sophomore, is guaranteed to draw considerably more respect and attention in 2011. He led the Titans to a thrilling 4-3 win against UCLA, outdueling the Bruins' own lavishly talented sophomore righty, Gerrit Cole.
On a field littered with high draft selections, future high draft selections, and sons of former pro players, Ramirez grabbed center stage. He struck out 13 in seven innings of work, allowing just two runs (one earned), two walks and six hits. Ramirez, whose four-seam fastball sits at 91-92 mph, constantly fooled the fastball-loving Bruins by using his sweeping 77-79 slider and 84 change to record strikeout after crucial strikeout.
UCLA coach John Savage admitted after the game that his hitters struggled with pitch recognition all night and will need to adjust to slow stuff in order stay in the best-of-three series. Smartly, Fullerton coach Dave Serrano will start Daniel Renken in today’s 7 p.m. ET contest. Not a flame-thrower, Renken, like Ramirez, is a crafty righty with excellent breaking and offspeed stuff.
The packed house at UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Stadium provided an electric atmosphere to the evening. Hollywood celebs were not present, since that set prefers Laker games. The closest thing to a celebrity sighting was Scott Boras, who arrived late and promptly sat down in the front row behind home plate.
It must be noted that Gary Brown, Fullerton’s speedy center fielder, remains sidelined with a broken finger on his left hand.
Despite being out-pitched by Ramirez, Cole was impressive. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound righty struck out seven in 6 2/3 innings, surrendering four runs, all earned. Cole was done in by two mistake pitches, one to Nick Ramirez and one to Christian Colon.
In the first two innings, Cole’s fastball sat around 96 mph, and touched 97-98. A candidate to be the first selection in the 2011 draft, Cole added an 84 change and his signature hard 87-88 slider.
Friday night’s game encompassed all that is great and not so great about upper-echelon college baseball. It was filled with brilliant and also sloppy plays; was far too long; featured excitement and tension; left one team quietly ecstatic and the other privately seething. In sum, it was a messy, unkempt masterpiece.
UCLA opened the scoring in the bottom of the first on doubles by Beau Amaral and Tyler Rahmatulla. UCLA held its slim 1-0 margin in the top of the third, when center fielder Amaral made a fantastic, Jim Edmonds-style diving catch of a drive hit into left-center by Walker Moore.
Fullerton answered with three in the top of the fourth. Nick Ramirez drove a single to left with the bases loaded to plate two runs. The Titans tallied another run when a poor throw home by Amaral permitted Tyler Pill to score.
The Titans increased their lead to 4-1 in the fifth when Christian Colon hammered a hanging changeup by Cole deep down the left-field line for a home run, barely fair.
Three agonizing and frustrating innings followed for UCLA. In the bottom of the seventh, the Bruins loaded the bases with no outs. In a heroic effort, Noe Ramirez proceeded to strike out Steve Rodriguez and Amaral. Blair Dunlap then hit a screaming line drive at Colon, who leapt high in the air to snag the ball. Colon said afterward that heavy topspin on Dunlap’s smash brought the ball down and made it easier to catch.
UCLA scored two in the eighth to narrow Fullerton’s lead to 4-3. However, with two runners on, pinch-hitter Marc Navarro popped up on the first pitch, ending the threat.
Next came the excruciating ninth. Lefty Nick Ramirez, who is a power-hitting first baseman by day, moonlights as the Titans closer late in games. With runners on first and third and no outs, UCLA called for a steal.
The Titans guessed right, and Dunlap was picked off first. Moore, now playing first, and Colon handled the rundown perfectly, anchoring Amaral to third base with no chance of scoring. With a chance to tie or win the game, Tyler Rahmatulla struck out and Chris Giovanzzo grounded out to end the battle.
Serrano was introspective after the game.
"I don’t know if an opening statement is needed; all was said out on the field," he said. "For whatever reason, this team has decided to do everything difficult."