LOWELL — With a comfortable 12-0 lead in her back pocket, Dracut High School senior Lauren Ramirez stared in at catcher Kaylee Kacavas for the sign.
The leadoff hitter for Lowell, showing a good eye, was ahead 2-0 in the count. After fouling off a few fastballs, the batter helplessly watched strike three cross home plate — knees buckled, bat on shoulder, and frozen in time.
The pitch, a deadly, off-speed drop curve, dropped the jaws of a few onlookers behind the plate and was the best offering of the afternoon from Ramirez. The next hitter went ahead in the count before Ramirez went back to the curve for just the second time of her outing. The result: an awkward popup, for the second out of the frame.
Ramirez didn’t offer up as much as a smirk, watching the hitters hopelessly wave at her pitches. Every pitch counted.
Last season, Lowell no-hit the Middies.
Ramirez countered Wednesday afternoon with an impressive performance of her own — a two-hit shutout in 6 innings, just days after opening her season with a 5-inning no-hitter, another mercy-rule victory for her team.
“I just focus on each batter, one pitch at a time,” said Ramirez, who admits that the awareness of a no-hitter typically crosses her mind, but leaves just as quickly as it arrived, allowing her to get the next out flawlessly.
Dracut isn’t not the only team in the region sporting an ace.
Terri Ferrazzani (North Reading), Rachael Smith (Winchester), and Kayla Maloney (Phillips Andover) all return following terrific 2012 campaigns.
Throwing with confidence, Ramirez believes she can retire every batter who steps to the plate, as long as she stays focused. If a batter gets a base hit, she’ll turn to her teammates and say “my bad, guys,” taking the blame for even the most minuscule errors.
“It’s the pitcher’s job to see the hitter and throw the pitch in a way so they have the least chance of making contact,” said Ramirez, who has five pitches in her repertoire.
“You have to have the mindset that you’re going to attack them and you’re going to beat them, because if you don’t you’ll just let them beat you and won’t pitch as well.”
That level of focus and intensity transcends her pitching and truly makes her an ace. She is lights out in the circle. But without the leadership and dedication of a true No. 1, she and the Middies would look much different.
It makes sense then why Ramirez, the Middies’ lone senior, is so humble. When asked about her pitching, which anchored Dracut’s run to the Division 2 state semifinals last season, she credits the fielders behind her.
“It’s more important to have a good defense,” says Ramirez, when asked the importance of her role as the ace of the staff.
“There’s no way I would’ve had a no-hitter if it wasn’t for some amazing defensive plays. I only had four strikeouts. That means all those other hitters are hitting the ball, so you need a strong defense.”
Two of those defenders are her younger sisters, junior twins Allison and Shannon .
Allison plays short while Shannon starts at first, in addition seeing time on the mound. Their father, Ray , an assistant coach, calls the pitches, giving signals to Kacavas behind the plate.
“It makes things easier,” said Allison. “You get comfortable, you know how [the twins] throw, how they play — it’s like finishing your best friend’s sentence.”
Shannon added that when Lauren “throws a certain pitch we know where it’s going to go, because we’ve been playing with her for so long.”
Ultimately, coach George Roy knows his team is better because of Ramirez’s presence, both on and off the mound.
“She really is one of the best pitchers in the state, but we’ve got a young team,” he said. “Lauren takes the young kids and helps them out. We’re going to be around for a while, but she leads the way for us. She sets the example. We wouldn’t quite be here without her.”
At North Reading, Ferrazzani owns a career 1.18 era as well as 279 strikeouts, and will certainly be an anchor on a North Reading squad that was ousted in the first round of the Division 2 North tournament last spring after going 18-2 in the regular season.
Maloney returns for her third season at Phillips after transferring from Central Catholic after her freshman year. The senior, who will play at Columbia University next year, fits the same selfless mold of an ace that Ramirez exemplifies.
“In a long career coaching, Kayla is the least self-centered star athlete I’ve ever known,” said coach Peter Drench. “She absolutely loves to play — when not pitching, she mentors younger teammates — not only fellow pitchers.”
Including her first start of the season last week, Maloney has a career 0.70 era at Phillips, with a 25-4 record and 327 strikeouts. In her first two seasons, Maloney led her team to the Big East Invitational championship twice.
Winchester coach Steve Swymer also knows the importance of having an ace. As a sophomore, Smith, went 16-6. She opened her season last week with a 13-strikeout, 5-inning no-hitter against Watertown.
“Rachael makes everything fall into place,” he said. “She thrives in the pressure situation. The whole team behind her is relaxed. You play with a different attitude knowing that she is on the mound. To have someone like her. . . it doesn’t come around too often.”
Lowell baseball team off to a slow start
After earning the top seed in the Division 1 North tournament last season, the Lowell High baseball team allowed 14 runs in its first two games to stumble out to an 0-2 start. In his first start of the season, Vanderbilt-bound Lynn English lefty Ben Bowden fanned 15 batters while allowing only two hits against Salem in a 7-1 victory.
Pat Bradley can be reached at email@example.com.