How Yohan Ramírez and Michael Petersen became Dodgers' latest bullpen success stories

Evan Phillips has seen this movie before, and the reason it looks so familiar is because the Dodgers closer starred in it himself.

The script goes like this: Struggling reliever is cast off by one and often multiple teams. Reliever is acquired by Dodgers, who suggest mechanical tweaks to his delivery, a new pitch, a different grip, a change in pitch sequencing and perhaps a new mental approach. Reliever becomes a high-functioning member of the Dodgers bullpen.

Phillips was that reliever in 2021 when, with an ERA of 7.36 in 44 games for Baltimore, he was released by the Orioles, signed with Tampa Bay, designated for assignment by the Rays and claimed off waivers by the Dodgers within a 15-day span in August.

Assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness suggested Phillips tweak the grip on his slider to give it more spin and sweeping action, pitching coach Mark Prior encouraged Phillips to add a cut-fastball and sinker to his repertoire, and Phillips transformed himself from castoff to closer by 2023.

Ryan Brasier was that guy last season, when the veteran right-hander was released by Boston with a 7.29 ERA in June, signed a minor league deal with the Dodgers, added a cut-fastball to his repertoire and went 2-0 with an 0.70 ERA in 39 games, ending the season as the team’s primary setup man.

Right-hander Yency Almonte (2022), left-hander Adam Kolarek (2020) and right-hander Brandon Morrow (2017) experienced similar career transformations with the Dodgers.

The latest in the line reliever redemption stories is Yohan Ramírez, who bounced through seven organizations in nine years and was designated for assignment six times — three by the New York Mets — in the past year before the Dodgers acquired him on May 20.

The 29-year-old right-hander from the Dominican Republic was a hot mess in his second and third games, hitting four of eight Cincinnati batters on May 24 and 26, when manager Dave Roberts came to the mound, put his arms around Ramírez’s neck and told him that he believed in his talent and to trust his stuff.

In his next 14 appearances entering Friday night’s game against the San Francisco Giants, Ramírez allowed three earned runs and 12 hits over 16 ⅓ innings for a 1.65 ERA, with 15 strikeouts and four walks, earning a promotion from mop-up man to a higher-leverage role.

Anthony Banda, a 30-year-old left-hander who had a 6.43 ERA in 10 games for the Washington Nationals in 2023 and was pitching for Cleveland’s triple-A team when he was traded to the Dodgers on May 17, could be another of those hidden gems, with a 1.06 ERA in his first 14 games.

And 30-year-old right-hander Michael Petersen has shown the potential to be a find in a small sample size, with a 2-0 record and 1.80 ERA in three games, but he has the requisite back story — he was pitching in a San Jose adult rec league in 2020 and missed the 2021 and 2022 seasons because of Tommy John surgery.

“When we sign a guy like Michael Petersen to a minor league deal, it’s always with a plan, that there’s something there to like, and if we can get that in line, then maybe add something else, give them some runway, it’s a lets-see-what-we-got kind of thing,” Phillips said.

“I was out of options in 2022, and the team gave me time to figure some things out. What I’ve noticed with the Dodgers is that we have a willingness to give guys some opportunity. I think that’s a unique thing in the game right now, a wonderful thing, and it sets up guys like Yohan, Michael and Anthony for success.”

Ramírez nearly fumbled that opportunity with his late-May meltdown in Great American Ball Park. He had given up a two-out single and hit Luke Maile and Stuart Fairchild with pitches to load the bases in the eighth inning of a 4-1 loss on May 26 when Roberts came to the mound to deliver some love and a pep talk.

Ramírez got Jacob Hurtubise to line out to right field and has been a different pitcher ever since.

“That was one of the best things that has ever happened to me on a baseball field,” Ramírez said through an interpreter. “I think it awakened something in me that I didn’t really know I had. It kind of revitalized my whole career, and my focus and my confidence has grown ever since that moment.”

Ramírez didn’t need to overhaul his four-pitch mix, which features a 94.5-mile sinker with 25 inches of vertical movement and 17 inches of left-to-right break and an 81-mph sweeper with 38.5 inches of drop and 18 inches of right-to-left break.

“He’s got really nasty stuff,” Dodgers second baseman Gavin Lux said. “When he’s in the zone, it’s not a comfortable at-bat.”

The Dodgers worked with Ramirez to adjust his pitch sequencing and attack different parts of the zone with different pitches.

“My agent told me that this was going to be a good organization to come to, that they were gonna give me a lot of information, so it’s been very helpful to kind of open my mind to what they’ve offered me, to be more creative with the ideas that they have,” Ramírez said. “I’m very thankful to the coaches and Dave Roberts for instilling that confidence and showing me how to use my pitches in a different way.”

Ramírez hit a low point in May when he was designated for assignment by the Orioles and Mets after giving up 11 earned runs in 14 ⅓ innings (6.91 ERA) of a combined 10 big-league appearances.

“You always believe in yourself and your abilities and talent, but sometimes it’s very difficult to bounce around, it gets a bit demoralizing,” Ramírez said. “You kind of walk around with your head low because you don’t know how long you’re gonna be here, you don’t know how long you’re gonna stay with the team from place to place.”

Now look at him: Ramirez entered in the eighth inning of a tie game against the Angels on June 21 and struck out the side. He entered in the seventh inning against the Chicago White Sox on Monday and struck out one in a scoreless inning of a 3-0 win. And Tuesday night, he was one of six relievers who combined for seven scoreless innings of a 4-3 win over the White Sox.

“He’s got a role,” Roberts said of Ramírez’s ascension on the bullpen depth chart. “The stuff has always been good enough; it just wasn’t in the zone enough. But he’s been in the zone. He gets some funky swings, some soft contact. I just love his energy. He’ll do anything I ask of him. He’s very resilient, so he bounces back really well.”

Resilience has been a strength for the 6-foot-7 Petersen, who toiled for eight years in the minor leagues before making his memorable major league debut at Colorado on June 18.

Petersen, who had a 1.61 ERA in 23 games with 31 strikeouts in 22 ⅓ innings for triple-A Oklahoma City, entered in the seventh inning with the Dodgers trailing the Rockies 8-4, and he gave up one run in two innings.

The Dodgers then staged a dramatic seven-inning rally in the ninth, riding Jason Heyward’s grand slam and Teoscar Hernández’s three-run homer to an 11-9 come-from-behind win.

“Everything about that day was absurd,” Petersen said. “I was joking with my parents that when you’re in a relief situation, you never dream of getting your first win, you dream of maybe getting a game finished or a save. Then J-Hey hit the grand slam, and I was like, ‘The game would be tied if I didn’t give up that run! I blew it. This is on me.

“Then Shohei [Ohtani] got a hit, [Freddie Freeman] was intentionally walked, Teo hit the home run … it took a couple of minutes for it to dawn on me that I’m in line for the win.”

Petersen spent five seasons (2015-2019) in the Milwaukee farm system without rising above the Class-A level, but when Covid wiped out the 2020 minor league season, Petersen, who grew up in the Bay Area, found a level he could dominate.

“A friend said he had a buddy running a rec-league team out of San Jose and they’d be happy to have you,” Petersen said. “I was like, ‘Hey, baseball is baseball.’ I think I went three or four innings before a guy made contact, and that contact was a bunt.”

Petersen signed with the Rockies in 2021 but blew out his elbow in spring training, had surgery and missed two seasons. He went 2-2 with a 3.46 ERA in 41 games for Colorado’s double-A and triple-A teams in 2023 before signing with the Dodgers in January.

“Literally a week into the spring, I already saw how they work,” Petersen said. “They sent me some slow-mo videos of my fingers on grips, they’re talking about how they can change this and that, and in the month span of spring training, my pitching style had changed for the better, by like a very large amount.”

The changes were subtle for Petersen, who throws a 97-mph four-seam fastball, an 88-mph cut-fastball and an 85-mph slider. The results were immediate.

“My old slider-curveball, I didn’t have my hands on the seam, and I kept falling off, I just wasn’t gripping it,” Petersen said. “They were like, ‘OK, we can work with this baseball, let’s get your hand comfortable.

“Rather than trying to change everything, we’ll change how I was throwing it. If you just change the grip, and your fingers do what they naturally do, they’ll still be on the seam. It was amazing.”

Ramírez, Banda and Petersen have helped ease the loss of injured relievers Brusdar Graterol, Joe Kelly and Brasier. Ramírez has established the strongest foothold of the three, and Banda has climbed what Roberts likes to call his “trust tree.”

Petersen hasn’t pitched enough to solidify a big-league spot, and because he has minor league options, he’ll probably be sent back down if the Dodgers need a fresh arm or if an established reliever comes off the injured list. But Petersen still feels like he’s in the right spot for long-term success.

“I played with a guy in Colorado who played here last year, [left-hander] Justin Bruihl, and he always talked about how great the Dodgers were,” Petersen said. “You don’t hear many guys coming to a new team talking about how much they loved their old team. Most guys will bash their old team and say, ‘Oh, it sucks.’

“But he was adamant that the Dodgers are a great spot for you and if you get a chance to sign with them, you’ll love it. Thankfully, I did.”

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