UNIVERSITY PARK — Success in baseball happens long before two teams compete on the diamond. For hitters, it even begins before they see a ball in batting practice.
Those who teach the game say the mental approach a hitter brings to the plate is as important — maybe more so — than any physical attribute.
At 6-foot, 160 pounds, State College’s Steven Ramos is proof.
A 22nd-round pick in 2010, Ramos entered Thursday’s game against Lowell 18-for-35 in his last ten games for an eye-catching .514 batting average. He continued streaking with a 4-for-5 night.
“I think the biggest thing is him sticking to a routine and committing to it,” said Spikes’ manager Oliver Marmol of Ramos. “Take the last two days of BP. He hasn’t hit a pop-up in BP and I think that’s starting to translate into games.
“Before, he’d take BP and pop-up all over the place and really not give it a second thought, and now he’s determined to keep the ball on the ground and use his speed.”
Ramos needs just nine plate appearances in the next two games to qualify for the New York-Penn League batting lead, but his .438 season average after Thursday would easily best Batavia’s Avery Romero (.375) for the top spot.
The nature of the game dictates that Ramos will eventually cool, but no matter when his recent success slows, it won’t take away from how far he’s come.
Drafted out of Ohlone Community College in California, Ramos struggled early with Johnson City in the Appalachian League.
He went just 1-for-15 with eight strikeouts in eight games and had trouble adjusting to better pitching and life on the road. He eventually questioned whether baseball was for him.
“My first year was probably the roughest,” Ramos said. “I came out and I struggled the first two or three weeks and wasn’t hitting. I thought I just made one of the biggest mistakes of my life. All I thought about was that I probably should have went to a four-year college and played another year and gotten a little better.”
After two years at Ohlone, just 45 minutes from his hometown, Ramos struggled with homesickness in his first extended time away from friends and family.
Also, the power-hitting mindset he had in college didn’t work in the pros. He popped up and struck out frequently because a big leg kick in his stance slowed his bat.
Something had to change.
Engrossing himself in the day-to-day minor league grind helped with his longing for familiarity and home.
On the field however, the remedy was mental. If hitting were a chess match between hitters and pitchers, Ramos’ size would make him a pawn. He’s been anything but this season.
After netting 65 hits in 263 at bats with Batavia last season, Ramos has 31 hits in just 71 at bats with State College. He said when he stopped trying to do too much the game opened up.
“Pretty much I’ve learned over the years to teach myself to relax,” Ramos said. “I would press way too much the last three years and this year I just go to the plate, take a second, breathe in, breathe out and just relax. Pay attention to the game and not worry about the result and just try to make a good at bat.”
That’s the mental part of the game preached by Spikes’ hitting coach Ramon “Smokey” Ortiz, who also coached Ramos in Johnson City.
“Number one, it tells me that he’s matured more,” Ortiz said. “His maturity has gotten him to the point where he understands how to approach mentally.”
Ortiz said Ramos’ speed and instincts make him one of the top defensive centerfielders in the NY-PL, but his improvements as a hitter could make him a complete threat.
“He’s doing what he’s supposed to do and in a consistent manner,” Ortiz said. “Everything you do in baseball has to be (about) consistency. That’s what we’re looking for. Strong mentality and be a good competitor and he has both right now.”
Ramos extended his league-leading hit streak to 12 games with a 4-for-5 night Thursday against the Spinners.
But a hot stretch isn’t what he’s after. Like every minor leaguer Ramos has big dreams. For now though, he appreciates where he is and the struggle it took to get there.
“I feel great about it now,” Ramos said. “Before, I was hesitant to change my swing because it worked for me when I was younger. But now I am actually really happy about what I’ve done. It feels great actually to be performing (well) and not worrying about struggling.”
“It’s a good feeling right now. I’m pretty happy with where I’m at and hopefully it just keeps progressing. There’s always something to work on so you just have to stay after it.”