FORT MYERS, Fla. — During minor league spring training games at the Red Sox complex, pitchers who are not throwing that day watch the games, roaming from field to field.
Henry Owens, in his Red Sox blue pullover, and Noe Ramirez, sporting a Boston red T-shirt, drift apart for an inning or two, but then they always seem to find each other. And, more times than not, they will be laughing.
“We just get each other, man,” Ramirez said. “Our humor is pretty similar.”
The way they chum around you would think they’ve known each other longer. But it was only two years ago when they became teammates in the organization. They immediately shared something in common.
“He’s a local and I’m a local,” Owens said, referring to their southern California roots.
But Owens and Ramirez, two pitchers who will likely start this year in Portland but might finish it at Fenway Park, could not have grown up more differently.
Ramirez came from the projects, Owens from the beach.
Ramirez, 24, hails from East Los Angeles, where he was raised with his parents and five siblings. There was crime in the area, with the expected sound of gunshots most nights. But Ramirez speaks with pride about his hometown.
“It’s a lot safer now,” he said. “Yes, it was dangerous. Yes, it was a tough place growing up. That’s what has molded me to who I am today; that and my parents.”
And baseball, a sport which got Ramirez to college (California State-Fullerton), a signing bonus ($625,000) from Boston in 2011, and now a chance for the major leagues.
Owens, 21, grew up southwest from Ramirez in Huntington Beach, a spot known for its spotless beaches and perfect waves. And, yes, Owens used to surf.
Thirty miles from East LA; it might as well have been 3,000 miles.
“Polar opposites,” Owens said. Getting to know Ramirez made Owens more appreciative of his own circumstances.
“I live in Huntington Beach. I lived a privileged life,” Owens said, adding with a smirk, “and now I play baseball for a living.”
Like Ramirez, Owens was introduced to baseball by his father. A lanky (6-foot-6) left-hander, Owens dominated at Edison High and the Red Sox drafted him in the same year as Ramirez. He received a $1.5-million signing bonus and is considered by many as Boston’s best pitching prospect.
Because of Owens’ ability, he usually played against older players, like when he was a freshman on the high school varsity team. The Red Sox treated him the same way. Owens began his pro career in 2012, at age 19, bypassing the usual rookie leagues to play in Class A Greenville. One of his teammates was Ramirez.
“I had heard of him. He had heard of me,” Ramirez said. “That first year of pro ball is when we started hanging out. We realized how similar we are. We became really good friends.”
On the mound, Owens made an impression immediately, recording a 12-5 record, including 130 strikeouts in 101 innings. Ramirez was 2-7, with 82 strikeouts in 84 innings.
Both were promoted to advanced Class A Salem last April. Manager Billy McMillon noticed that the two pitchers hung around together and had fun. But he saw something else.
“They were leaders in the clubhouse,” said McMillon, who will now manage them in Portland. “They were always around, handing situations. It’s a product of where they come from and who they are as individuals.
“And both are wonderful pitchers.”
Ramirez moved to the bullpen last year. His friend offered encouragement.
“When he told me they were going to convert him to a reliever, I told him he might be getting to the big leagues (in 2013),” Owens said.
Ramirez did not reach the majors, but he was promoted to Portland (June 29) before Owens.
Meanwhile, Owens was dealing in Salem, including one stretch in July when he threw 19 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings.
“He’s just confident in himself,” said catch Blake Swihart, who was in Salem last year and will be in Portland next month. Owens “has a lot of composure and some amazing pitches. He can throw any pitch in any count.”
Owens was promoted to Portland on Aug. 1. The roommates were together again.
Ramirez converted 5-of-6 save chances with the Sea Dogs. Owens went 3-1 (1.78 ERA) in Portland. He finished the year with 169 strikeouts, second-most among all minor league pitchers, and the most by a Red Sox minor leaguer since Clay Buchholz (171) in 2007.
Both Owens and Ramirez were invited to major league spring training. They soaked in the atmosphere.
“You see those guys and they’re so committed to their craft, and to the team,” Ramirez said. “It makes you want to get better as a player and as a person.”
Owens said “watching their bullpen sessions or just playing catch, there was a purpose in everything they did.
“I enjoyed every second of it. I definitely want to be back with those guys as soon as possible.”
Owens could conceivably get there this year. He pitches with deception and offers a 92-93 mph fastball, solid curveball and a plus change-up.
“His stuff is very good and he can get guys out in the strike zone,” said Red Sox director of player development Ben Crockett.
In other words, Owens does not have to nibble around the plate. He can challenge the hitter, and usually succeed.
Ramirez has an outside shot at the majors if his development continues. He features a change-up, along with a sinking fastball and developing slider.
“He can put the ball on the ground (induce grounders) at any time,” Crockett said. “He’s a pitch away from getting out of a jam. That’s a huge thing. And the change-up has been a separator for him. He can run it in and away from righties — which makes it really two pitches for him.”
Ramirez has so much movement on his pitches, Owens said, “watching Noe Ramirez throw a bullpen from behind is one of the most entertaining things.”
Owens and Ramirez have worked — and laughed — their way through the minors together. They are both a couple steps away from their dream.