JC Ramirez has made his way into Angels’ rotation and is loving it

Angels pitcher JC Ramirez has gone from opening-day finisher last year to member of the starting rotation this year.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Garrett Richards is expected to be the opening-day starter for the Angels on Thursday in Oakland.

Do you know who pitched in the 2017 opener?

JC Ramirez.

OK, Ramirez wasn’t the opening-day starter. He instead was the opening-day finisher, the last of four Angels who pitched that day in a 4-2 loss to the Oakland Athletics. The game was started by Ricky Nolasco.


Almost a year later, Ramirez is a member of the Angels’ rotation — and a reminder of how quickly fortunes can change in baseball.

“It was weird last year,” the right-hander said. “I didn’t know what to expect. When they made me a starter, I didn’t know what to do.”

Ramirez, 29, started early in his minor league days but became a reliever exclusively in 2012, the first 111 appearances of his big-league career coming out of the bullpen.

After pitching in relief three times to start last season, he was moved into the rotation, won 11 games and proved himself to be a viable option for a franchise that hasn’t always featured pitching depth.

“I didn’t want to do it, but I had to do it,” Ramirez said of being converted into a starter. “I began liking it, enjoying it. Now, I love it.”

The transition has been a dramatic one for a pitcher who at one time was convinced his future was as a closer. That was Ramirez’s goal early when he was a reliever in the Philadelphia Phillies organization.

With that mentality, he struggled initially with the pace of starting, the fact he had to pitch in the moment but also try to go deep into games.

“I didn’t know how to manage it,” Ramirez said. “I remember throwing gas the first two innings and then being so tired. Now, I know what to do. Now, I’m being smart.”

He said he arrived here last month confident in what the Angels were expecting from him, unlike the spring of 2017 when his status was more in doubt.

That stability allowed him to prepare for the season free of concerns about how he’d be used.

Ramirez has looked solid in his Cactus League starts and made his final appearance in Arizona on Thursday, pitching six scoreless innings in a triple-A game.

“Every five days, I say, ‘It’s JC time,’ ” Ramirez said, smiling. “I love it. It’s about me that day. I’m going to be the guy where they say, ‘JC is pitching today, so we have a good shot to win this game.’ I want to be the guy. I’m going to be the guy.”

Tuneup for Richards

Richards pitched three innings Friday in a triple-A game against Arizona, his final outing before the opener.

Afterward, he said he feels fully ready to go physically and more than ready to go mentally.

“I know that when I’m healthy I can produce,” Richards said. “For me, my main focus this spring was just to go about my business in a way that I could stay healthy. … Up until this point, I feel great.”

He has been limited to six starts in each of the last two seasons because of injuries.

Last year, Richards’ problems started in his first appearance, which also came in Oakland against the A’s. He pitched into the fifth inning but had to be pulled because of cramping in his biceps.

On Thursday, he figures to be back on the same mound, though manager Mike Scioscia had not yet made the decision official.

Scioscia did go so far as to call Richards the rotation’s “lead dog,” a label he has used for Richards in the past.

“I like to think of myself as somebody who leads by example,” Richards said. “We all lean on each other in there. We feed off each other.”

Seeing red

Reliever Keynan Middleton showed up in the clubhouse this week with his dreadlocks dyed an Angels-like red.

He isn’t alone. Follow reliever Felix Pena has his dreadlocks colored blond. Middleton said the two of them have been talking about going with similar looks all spring.

“Other than my hair,” Middleton said, “there’s not much exciting about me.”

Minor assignment

Shohei Ohtani and Nick Tropeano will be the starting pitchers during a scrimmage featuring mostly Angels minor leaguers at 11 a.m. Saturday.

Ohtani is expected to make his pitching debut in the season-opening series in Oakland.

Tropeano was optioned to triple-A Salt Lake on Thursday, but could rejoin the Angels in mid-April for a start if Andrew Heaney is unavailable. Heaney has been slowed by elbow inflammation.

Tyler Skaggs will start the Angels’ final game in Arizona against the Diamondbacks at 1 p.m. at Tempe Diablo Stadium.

Short hops

Ramirez will start one of the Angels’ games during the upcoming Freeway Series. … Matt Shoemaker also will start against the Dodgers, though Scioscia wouldn’t disclose the team’s exact plans.