Thursday, in a 2-0 loss to the Blue Jays that you can only hope is not a harbinger of the season to come, Ruiz went 2-for-3 to bump his Grapefruit League average to .478. For a lineup looking to replace the production of two of its longtime stars, the performance of the catcher from Panama is, at the very least, a reminder that the Phillies still can call on several regulars who have track records of success.
"I'm going to try to do my best," Ruiz said. "I'm going to try to produce some good offense, because we need it. With [Ryan] Howard out and Chase [Utley], I know myself and my teammates are working hard to do our best."
Over the last two seasons, Ruiz has quietly established himself as one of the more dependable hitters in the Phillies' lineup, hitting .292 with a .385 on-base percentage, .414 slugging percentage and 14 home runs while averaging 126 games behind the plate. He is the rare player who has more walks (103 since 2010) than strikeouts (102), and last season his .299 average with runners in scoring position ranked fourth on the team.
All of this leads to a natural question. With the status of Utley's knees still uncertain and Howard just yesterday shedding the protective boot he has worn since developing an infection in his surgically repaired foot, might the Phillies consider boosting their offense by moving Ruiz out of his usual spot near the bottom of the batting order?
We posed that question to Charlie Manuel, but the Phillies' manager was skeptical.
"We have to have some guys who can run and things like that," Manuel said. "We have to have guys who are going to be able to handle the bat, and execute, and also move on the bases. We aren't going to be able to go station-to-station unless we get Utley and Howard back."
Don't read that as Manuel degrading Ruiz' abilities as a hitter. Last year, he often hit his catcher in the six- and seven-hole when players like Utley and Placido Polanco were replaced by light-hitting utility men Michael Martinez and Wilson Valdez.
And Ruiz has historically performed well when hitting higher than his usual No. 8 spot in the order. In 127 plate appearances in the six-hole, he carries a batting line of .315/.417/.454. In 537 plate appearances in the seven-hole, his line is .302/.375/.445. In the eight-hole, it's .247/.350/.369 in 1,384 plate appearances. Although Ruiz draws a lot more walks when he bats directly in front of the pitcher, he sees a lot more pitches he can drive when he hits higher in the order. He averages a home run every 41.3 plate appearances batting seventh, compared with one every 72.84 plate appearances batting eighth. He averages an RBI every 9.75 plate appearances batting eighth, compared with an RBI every 8.52 plate appearances while batting seventh.
"Definitely, when you hit eighth you are going to see different pitches because the pitcher is behind you," Ruiz said. "In the six-hole, seventh, you can see better pitches to hit. I'm a catcher, and that's the way I call the game."
But Manuel clearly thinks the key to the Phillies' offensive success without Howard and Utley will be bat-handling and baserunning. They will need players like Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino and Juan Pierre or Scott Podsednik to steal bags whenever possible. They will need runners who can move first-to-third or second-to-home on a single and who can score from first on a double.
For all Ruiz' ability, speed is not his forte. Besides, Manuel still sees his chief concern as keeping his catcher healthy through the rigors of a season spent behind the plate. Last year, Ruiz set career highs with 132 games and 472 plate appearances, but he failed to reach 380 plate appearances in 2008 or 2009. In 2010, he battled a concussion. Last year, he missed time with back and groin injuries. Ruiz tinkered with his conditioning routine this offseason to better prepare his 33-year-old body for the marathon season, but a big-league catcher will inevitably face contact.
"To me, he kind of fits [at No. 8], and it's also not as hard on him," Manuel said. "But I don't mind hitting him sixth or seventh or something like that."
Manuel says he has barely thought about the potential incarnations of his lineup. Hunter Pence has spent most of the spring hitting cleanup. Rollins will take his usual spot at the top of the order. Victorino and Polanco also figure to hit in the top half of the order, so there really isn't an obvious slot for Ruiz outside of sixth, seventh and eighth.
"Wherever Charlie puts me in the lineup, I don't worry much about it," he said.
And in a spring that has presented its share of headaches, Ruiz has granted the Phillies the luxury of not having to worry about him.
Contact David Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org,
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