David Murphy: Ruiz leading the way for the Phillies

Posted: June 28, 2012

IT WAS MARCH, and Carlos Ruiz was raking, and when you talked to him you saw a sense of duty in his eyes. He had bulked up over the offseason, his squat frame coated with an extra layer of muscle, the result of a conscious attempt to better prepare his aging body for a season in which the Phillies would need every ounce of offense their hitters could muster.

"Because we need it," he explained after a Grapefruit League game in late March.

Can you imagine where they would be without it? Tuesday night, he scored or drove in three of the Phillies' runs in a 5-4 victory over the Pirates, the biggest of them coming in the bottom of the eighth inning, when he homered on an 0-2 pitch for what would prove to be a crucial insurance run. The blast also gave him a career-high 10 home runs on the season, eclipsing his previous mark of nine with 1 week remaining before the All-Star Break.

"I think it's happened a couple times lately this year, where he'll have a bad at-bat or a bad couple of at-bats, and everyone's expecting him to slow down, because he's been so hot," said backup catcher Brian Schneider. "And then he gets a hit, and then he gets a bigger hit. He just keeps putting together solid games."

He has put together so many, in fact, that after Tuesday night's 3-for-4 showing he was leading the National League with a .361 batting average, seven points ahead of the Mets' David Wright and eight points ahead of the Reds' Joey Votto. Forget about the All-Star Game — as of Tuesday, the far more recognizable Yadier Molina and Buster Posey were comfortably ahead of him in fan voting — and start talking about the MVP. After Tuesday night's performance, Ruiz ranked second among qualifying NL hitters with a 1.006 OPS, trailing only Votto. His .427 on-base percentage ranked third, and his .579 slugging percentage ranked fifth.

Remember, this is a catcher we are talking about, a guy who spends most of his time wearing a protective shell and playing in the dirt. Take Tuesday night, for instance. Ruiz' top priority in the top of the seventh was finding a way to coax a shutdown performance out of a bullpen that has provided little in the way of relief over the first 3 months of the season. With runners on second and third and one out and the Pirates having just cut the Phillies' lead to 4-3, Neil Walker lofted a Michael Schwimer pitch to leftfield for a flyout that left Michael McHenry tagging up at third and heading home for what would have been the tying run. Ruiz blocked the plate, caught John Mayberry Jr.'s perfect one-hopper, and braced for the inevitable collision.

In the top of the eighth, with the tying run on second and nobody out, Ruiz ripped off his mask and sprinted to the backstop, where he made an underhanded catch of a bunt that Josh Harrison had popped up foul. Only after all of this did Ruiz send his 10th home run of the season sailing into the leftfield seats to give the Phillies a two-run lead that would be halved in the top of the ninth when Jonathan Papelbon allowed a solo home run to McKenry.

"There's twice as much of a load on him every night," Schneider said. "So it's been fun to watch."

If not for a bullpen that has blown six eighth-inning leads this season, Ruiz would be the reason the Phillies are knocking on the door of first place despite playing the first 3 months of the season without their No. 3 and No. 4 hitters. Instead, he is the reason that they are still alive, the reason that after Tuesday night's victory over the upstart Pirates they are 36-40 and 7.5 games out of first and 4.5 games out of second.

Charlie Manuel admitted Tuesday night that he does not like to talk about his players when they are in a groove, particularly players like Ruiz who are playing so far above expectations that you tend to fear and equally dramatic crash back to earth. But Ruiz has shown no signs of slowing down, and if he can carry his tear into the second half of the season, when Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are hoping to rejoin the lineup (Utley perhaps as soon as Wednesday) the Phillies suddenly look a lot more capable of making one of those late-season runs for which they are known so well.

They have needed it. And their catcher has provided it.

Contact David Murhpy at murphyd@phillynews.com. For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read his blog, High Cheese, at www.philly.com/HighCheese. Follow him on Twitter at @HighCheese.

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