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Erasmo Ramirez takes long journey from Nicaragua to Rays starting pitcher

Erasmo Ramirez, of the Tampa Bay Rays, pitches

Erasmo Ramirez, of the Tampa Bay Rays, pitches in the first inning of a game against the Cleveland Indians on June 30, 2015 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. Credit: Getty Images / Brian Blanco

Soyapango, El Salvador, is about a 10-hour drive from Erasmo Ramirez's hometown of Rivas, Nicaragua, but the Rays righthander, then 14 years old, knew he had to leave his family and go there if he was going to have a chance to live his big-league dream.

Baseball academies serve as a prep school of sorts for youngsters living in Latin American countries, but Ramirez said he found no takers.

"When I was in Nicaragua, I tried to find an opportunity, any [baseball] academy," said Ramirez, who is scheduled to start for the Rays Sunday against Ivan Nova. "But they always said I was a small guy, and I needed to be a little bit taller."

Ramirez found his opportunity two counties away in the Fundacion Educando A Un Salvadoreno, a sports and educational academy in Soyapango. But it meant moving away from his family.

"I was almost 15. I was young," he said. "But it's something you have to do at some point.

"No matter how old you are, if you want to succeed, sometimes you have to make some sacrifices in life," the 5-11, 200-pound righthander said. "Maybe that was the big one I got, [being] separated from my family when I was young. I learned and I know I'm proud of myself for [doing] it. I executed everything and now I'm here, helping my family."

Despite having to leave Nicaragua, the four-year veteran said he is "always" proud of his heritage, and is one of just 13 players from the Central American country to appear in the big leagues. Four-time All-Star Dennis Martinez highlights the list, and Everth Cabrera, Wilton Lopez, and J.C. Ramirez are the other three active players.

"We have a lot of guys who get signed, and play in the minor-league system, but [with] the small group we have in the big leagues, you just feel happy to be here," said Ramirez, 25, who is 6-3 with a 4.01 ERA this season. "You try to do the best you can do every day, [and] show everybody that the country has guys who can bring something."

Ramirez was acquired by Tampa Bay in March from Seattle in exchange for Mike Montgomery, who boasts a superior ERA (1.62) but is averaging fewer strikeouts per nine innings (5.9 to 7.8) than Ramirez.

Even aside from his home country, Ramirez has beaten the odds to reach the majors, as he said he was constantly told in his youth that he was too small to have a pro career.

Ramirez signed with the Mariners in 2007 and made his big-league debut in 2012.

He does not have overpowering stuff -- his average fastball velocity is around 92 mph -- so control was his calling card in the minors. He averaged 1.8 walks per nine innings in five minor-league seasons, and is averaging 2.9 this season to go along with his career-high strikeout rate.

All of it has delighted his family back home.

"They're very proud," he said. "Every day, they're just happy and always care what happened to me, what I'm thinking, what I'm doing, and they just push me every day to be better."

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