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After two years as reliever, Ari Ronick joins RailCats, shines in rotation

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Updated: July 10, 2013 6:57AM



GARY — From starter, to side-arming relief pitcher, back to starter.

Ari Ronick has come full circle, and he has flourished with the RailCats in his return to the rotation.

The 6-foot-5 left-hander began his professional career with two-plus seasons as a starter in the San Francisco Giants organization, before circumstances led to his conversion to the bullpen for another two. After a brief stint with Camden in the Atlantic League in that relief role earlier this season, he has returned to his roots with the RailCats.

And Ronick has gone 3-1 with a 2.91 ERA in four starts, winning each of his last three outings with a 1.83 ERA.

“This is 20 years of muscle memory, over the top, so it’s a little more natural to me, and it’s starting to get a little better,” he said. “It’s just been making adjustments on the fly.”

Because of tightness in his triceps, Ronick did miss a start during his win streak, primarily as a precaution — with manager Greg Tagert making the decision over the objections of the pitcher — given not only his transition back to starting, but also that the RailCats use a four-man rotation. But the 27-year-old has proven to be a key member of the team’s staff, if a late addition.

Ronick signed with the RailCats on May 7, with no guarantees, viewed at least somewhat as a contingency plan with projected starter Matt McSwain (death in the family) and potential candidate Takahiro Matsuka (visa issues) both arriving late to spring training. He wound up earning a spot in the rotation, with the veteran McSwain leaving the team before Opening Day and getting placed on the inactive list, and the former Japanese major leaguer Matsuka beginning the season in the bullpen before getting released after one poor appearance.

“He’s been exceptional so far,” Tagert said of Ronick. “Opportunities always present themselves differently; his was really presented by the fact we had two guys coming late into camp, and he was really brought here not just for insurance purposes, because we knew he had a good background, a good arm. He knew coming in he had a chance and at least there was an opportunity, and that’s why he came here. And he’s taken full advantage of it; he’s been extremely good.”

Ronick’s second pro season was extremely good, as he went 7-6 with a 2.65 ERA at Single-A Augusta in 2009, among the promising pitchers in the South Atlantic League. But the next season, he was limited to three games at High-A San Jose, undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his elbow to remove bone spurs.

In part because of that injury, and in part because the Arizona Diamondbacks had selected sidewinder Joe Paterson in the Rule 5 Draft, the Giants approached Ronick about becoming such a lefty specialist, perhaps providing a more paved path to the majors.

“To tell the truth, when I came back (from the surgery), I wasn’t quite as strong as a starter,” said Ronick, who occasionally had dropped down during his college days at Portland. “I lost a little bit of velocity, so I said, hey, I’ll try it. They threw me into a spring training game, and I struck out six lefties in a row. I got all excited, we did it, we had a great first year. Then I hit that Double-A level where hitters are a little more disciplined, the strike zone’s a little smaller, and I didn’t throw the ball well enough last year.”

Indeed, back at San Jose in 2011, Ronick went 3-1 with a 3.56 ERA and one save in 45 games, all out of the bullpen. But last season at Double-A Richmond, he went 1-2 with a 7.93 ERA and one save in 35 games.

Among those 35 appearances in 2012 was one solitary start — a spot start because of an injury to a teammate — four shutout innings of one-hit, five-strikeout ball last June 16. “Especially in the middle of such a bad year for me, that was a bright spot,” Ronick said.

Though that outing whet his appetite to start again, he signed with Camden as a side-arming reliever, after the Giants released him in late January. But after he allowed two runs in 2/3 of an inning in two games, the Riversharks let him go.

“It was time for me to make a change, to try starting again, to go back over the top, and I jumped at the chance to come here,” Ronick said.

“The mental aspect of being a reliever has really helped me as a starter, actually. When you come into the game as a reliever, you’re really focused on ‘now’ — this hitter, this pitch — instead of long-term over the course of a game. So coming back as a starter, having more of that approach — I need to get this guy out, this is the most important hitter of the game — has helped me. Physically, it’s taken a little bit of time, but they have a good conditioning program here that helps you recover between starts. The big thing, whether it’s starting or relieving, whether it’s sidearm or over the top, I just want to play.”



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