LAKELAND, Fla. - A group of pitchers walked to a back field last month, at the beginning of this protracted spring training, and a 24-year-old Venezuelan asked a 39-year-old Dominican if he wanted to have a catch. Sure, Joaquin Benoit said to Edubray Ramos. The two Phillies relievers tossed a ball for a few minutes.
"You know what?" Benoit told him afterward. "You and I are going to be partners this spring training."
Ramos, less than a week from his first opening day in the majors, smiled Sunday morning.
"And," he said, "it's been like that the whole time."
Ramos has pitched just 40 innings in the majors, but his roster spot was never in doubt this spring. He will be in the bullpen, as a middle reliever with a chance for a larger role. Ramos has the velocity and the command to be a shutdown, late-inning man.
Last winter, at home in chaotic Venezuela, Ramos considered his good fortune. He was signed and released by St. Louis as a teenager and spent two years out of baseball. He darted through the Phillies' system last summer. He flashed moments of brilliance in the majors. He withstood the pitfalls of inexperience.
He demanded more than a 3.83 ERA. Part of that is why he attached himself this spring to Benoit, a 15-year veteran. It is also why Ramos worked during the offseason to improve his strength. He is noticeably bigger this spring; Ramos said he weighs 230 pounds. He ended last season at 218.
Ramos has a 0.96 ERA in 10 games this spring.
"I realized that I had to do something different because things in the big leagues are harder than you think," Ramos said through an interpreter. "So to get mentally and physically ready for a long season, you really need to put in the work before the season starts."
Ramos, even with a more slender frame, fired fastballs last season that averaged 95 mph. He featured a slider that generated a decent percentage of swings and misses. Less than a week into the player's big-league career, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin identified Ramos as a pitcher with "the stuff and the demeanor to be a closer."
Benoit's eyes widened Sunday when asked about his first impressions of the young righthander.
"Great arm," Benoit said. "I'm seeing it firsthand. I would say he's a work in progress. But he definitely has the tools to be whatever he wants to be."
The Phillies signed Ramos in 2012 for nothing; he just wanted another chance to pitch in professional baseball after his 10-game stint in rookie ball with the Cardinals ended. For two years, he worked for a contractor in Venezuela and cleaned floors to support his mother and avoid trouble.
"Not everybody is going to mature at the same age," Benoit said. "But I believe that was a wake-up call for him. Hopefully he does everything better now so his career can take off. He's still young. He's in the big leagues, so hopefully he takes advantage of these opportunities."
Like the chance to pick Benoit's brain about how to survive in the majors.
"He has given me really good advice throughout the spring," Ramos said. "We talked about how to get guys out. He has seen me pitch. He always tells me, 'You have to do this. You have to do that.' He tells me how to behave on the mound. He has been a great help this spring."
The Phillies prioritized bullpen improvements during the offseason, spending $14 million to add Benoit and Pat Neshek. The most significant upgrade could be a full season of Ramos.
With a little more muscle and perspective, he now knows what to expect.
"I'll be better than last season because I am more confident this year," Ramos said. "I believe in myself more than I did last year. I got ready during the offseason. I worked on the execution of each one of my pitches. It's important to feel ready, to know you're capable of doing what you're doing. Last year, I showed to myself that I'm that pitcher and can be even better this year."