Steven Ramos is off to a fast restart in the Appalachian League.
The Johnson City Cardinals center fielder is leading the league in runs (24) and stolen bases (12) and batting .377 (second in the league) while helping the first-place Cardinals (15-5) build a four-game lead on the Elizabethton Twins in the West Division.
Ramos, who was sent to Florida after going 1-for-15 in eight games with Johnson City in 2010, hasn’t been caught stealing this season. He’s accustomed to beating the rap. The 6-foot, 160-pounder said he stole 47 bases in 48 attempts as a sophomore while helping Ohlone Community College (Fremont, Calif.) to a state title in 2010.
Ramos could rob you blind without getting a stolen base. He scored from first base on a botched pickoff attempt in the California Community College Athletic Association state championship game.
The former Cal State Fullerton signee is studious, instinctive and fearless on the basepaths.
“He’s fast — an above-average runner — but he also gets underway really quickly,” Johnson City manager Mike Shildt said. “He gets really good jumps, and that plays both ways — on the bases and when he’s playing defense as well. … He’s positioning himself well, gets good jumps, takes good angles and has made some really nice plays. He’s made some plays look routine that really aren’t.”
Ramos recently stole 10 bases during a four-game stretch that included celebrating his 21st birthday on July 4 by going 2-for-4 with two runs and two stolen bases. He stole four bases, including two steals of third base, in a 13-inning game against Kingsport on July 3.
Ramos could end up with one of the better base-stealing seasons since St. Louis made Johnson City an affiliate in 1975. Vince Coleman stole 43 bases and was caught stealing three times in 58 games for Johnson City in 1982. (Coleman stole 145 bases the following year at Class-A Macon.)
Alex Cole was 46-for-54 in stolen base attempts in 66 games in 1985, Tremayne Donald was 44-for-59 in 1990 and Basil Shabazz was 43-for-54 in 1992.
Batting .377 helps, too. Ramos has gotten more comfortable going against his nature — slowing things down.
“Last year when he was with us he was an aggressive free swinger,” Shildt said. “He would expand the zone a lot. He wasn’t able to slow the game down. He spent a lot of time in the Gulf Coast (League) last year working on that.”
The Florida retreat proved invaluable for Ramos’ maturation.
“I think last year was a wake-up call when I was here for a little while,” he said. “The game was a little harder. They sent me down and that helped out a lot. Coming back this year and being with the same coaches kind of makes it a little easier, too.”
Patience is an ongoing process that won’t be rushed, though Ramos was briefly bumped from leadoff to No. 9 in the lineup this season. He has shown that you don’t have to walk before you run, although it would be beneficial. Ramos drew his first walk of the season on Sunday at Pulaski.
“I think that will develop — taking walks when they’re there,” Shildt said. “I don’t know that he’ll ever be a high-walks guy. … We’re not really concerned about that right now.
“He’s always going to be aggressive, which we encourage. But now he’s starting to be aggressive with a sense of purpose. He uses the whole field and he’s getting better pitches to hit.”
Ramos had 11 walks in 48 games last season.
“They’ve been around the (strike) zone a lot,” he said, “but there’s been some at-bats where I kind of threw them away and swung at some pitches I shouldn’t have swung at. I mean, there are those where I get anxious and try to do a little too much.”
Ramos’ goals this season included batting at least .300 and stealing 25 or 30 bases. His speed will assist his average — “I’ve had a couple of infield hits, but I mean they come with the good times,” he says with a chuckle — but he’s also had his share of hard-hit outs, including two on Sunday night.
“I’m actually seeing it pretty good right now,” Ramos said.
Ramos enjoys Johnson City on and off the field. Going from California to Appalachia makes for quite an adjustment in some ways — there’s more wine and less moonshine in Central California — but Ramos said his hometown of Tracy, Calif., (population 82,000) is similar in size to Johnson City.
Minus this region’s slow-talking accent and the mountains, which were some 75 minutes away from Tracy, Ramos sees many similarities to home.
“I actually really like it out here,” he said. “I grew up in a country town. This is kind of like home. The accent’s the only thing different.”
Not that the Cardinals have much time to visit with the locals. Monday was the first of three off days during the 71-day season.
“Pretty much all we do,” Ramos said, “is wake up, go eat somewhere quick and go to the field. And then at night we usually just go to Applebees or Hooters or somewhere like that so we can get our dinner in.”
Spending so much time together makes the Cardinals a family, and Ramos says a staff that includes Shildt, hitting coach Ramon “Smokey” Ortiz and pitching coach Doug White is ideal for helping form relationships. Clubhouse manager Pat Cramer is a people person who puts out a lot of fires, too.
“Patty is great,” Ramos said. “He works really hard for us. Shildt is a great manager, and Smokey and Dougie ... I mean there are great people in this clubhouse.”
Of course, winning always helps. The Cardinals are in first place after winning their first championship in 35 years last year.
“It’s been enjoyable to watch them play,” Shildt said. “We still have work to do, but this group has shown that they’re more than hungry to improve and have the desire to make the most out of their opportunities in their careers.”
Pitcher Tyrell Jenkins was at his best in a victory Saturday at Pulaski. The lanky 6-foot-3 right-hander allowed two hits, two walks and no earned runs while striking out eight in six innings.
“He’s really starting to be more consistent in the zone with all three of his pitches,” Shildt said. “His whole game’s starting to evolve. It seems like every outing everything’s a little crisper and he has a little better feel for what he’s doing.
“He pitched so well, it was a real joy to watch him Saturday night. We got a lead for him and he went out and pitched exactly like you want a guy to pitch with a lead.”
Notes: Left-hander Ryan Sherriff (1-1) is scheduled to start when the Cardinals begin a six-game homestand tonight at 7 against Greeneville (7-13). … Johnson City added 23-year-old free agent pickup Matt Rein before its recent road trip. Shildt was encouraged by the 5-foot-11, 170-pound left-hander’s debut, a two-inning relief appearance Saturday. … Two of the opposing batters that have made an impression on Ramos are the Elizabethton Twins’ Eddie Rosario and Art Charles of the Bluefield Blue Jays. Rosario, an outfielder, has exceptional bat speed. He has four doubles, a triple and five home runs. Charles, a 6-foot-6, 221-pound first baseman, has eight doubles, two triples and eight home runs in 81 at-bats.