Hitting big-time, Phillies' Ruiz enjoys full all-star plate

Posted: July 10, 2012

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Carlos Ruiz hid behind a wall in the visitors clubhouse at Atlanta's Turner Field. This was two months before the Phillies catcher became an all-star, before he hit .350 in a first half that defied reason, before he earned the praise of baseball's best.

He wore a lucha libre mask and a title belt. Charlie Manuel was still in his office, and Ruiz wanted to surprise his manager. He was entertaining an entire room.

"No, no, not yet," a few players told Ruiz. One expressed concern for a 68-year-old man about to be spooked by a catcher dressed as a wrestler. "No, he's not going to have a heart attack," another said.

Manuel walked away, and this was Ruiz's chance. He dashed into the office and sat in Manuel's chair. When Manuel returned, he stopped at the door and chuckled as about a dozen players watched.

The room erupted in laughter. That night, Ruiz drove in seven runs - a franchise record for a catcher - in a 15-13 loss to the Braves.

Manuel's positive demeanor sets a tone in the Phillies clubhouse, even as a season dips into irrelevancy. If second baseman Chase Utley is the team's "heart and soul," as pitcher Cliff Lee says, Ruiz is the team's charm.

And he's a darn good hitter, too.

Ruiz, who once signed for $8,000, was the happiest man Monday in a room full of millionaires gathered for the All-Star Game. A translator issued by Major League Baseball sat to Ruiz's left, but he was superfluous. It's not that Ruiz ever had trouble with his English; the spotlight typically toyed with his confidence. Not today. No, this was Ruiz's day.

"It's my first time here," Ruiz said. "I hope it's not the last time."

He allowed himself to be proud of his individual accomplishments with his team floundering. It was a rare hint of selfishness from Ruiz, but no one could blame him.

A group of 10 family members and friends, including his mother and two sons, traveled from Panama to celebrate the unlikeliest stretch of baseball. There is no rational explanation how a 33-year-old catcher could hit .350 with a .995 OPS in 78 games. Some will try, but ultimately there is no answer.

Greg Gross first noticed it in spring training. Ruiz had arrived with purpose.

"He came in," the Phillies hitting coach said, "swung the bat great in the cage, and he hasn't fiddled with one thing all year."

Juan Samuel first noticed it in early June. Ruiz was actually in a slump; he sputtered for eight games without an extra-base hit and started pulling the ball. Then he shot one up the middle.

"I'm like, "This is it. He's got it,' " the third-base coach said. "It's not something that's an accident. . . . Good hitters recognize what they're doing when they're going bad and what they should be doing when they're going good. That did it for me."

Placido Polanco has no idea when he suspected Ruiz could be onto something special.

"I'm very proud of him," said Polanco, his closest friend on the team. "I know it because I've been there. It's like . . . I call it The Zone. The Zone is right there."

Polanco made a small square with his hands.

"If the ball is not there," he said, "you don't swing at it. To be in that for that period of time, it's hard to do it."

What does it feel like to be in The Zone?

"It feels great," Polanco said. "You feel comfortable. You feel like . . ." His voice trailed into a whoosh sound.

That could be the best explanation for the inexplicable.

Joe Mauer is the only catcher to have won three batting titles. Until Mauer's .347 average in 2006, no catcher had won a batting title since 1942, when Ernie Lombardi hit .330 for the Boston Braves.

Just a half-season near the top for a catcher like Ruiz is astounding.

"It's tough," Mauer said. "You get foul tips and nicks and bruises and beat up back there. There are times when you go up there with a bat and you can't even feel your hands.

"I think he's probably been around long enough to understand he's back there for his defensive prowess. The hitting is definitely a bonus."

Indeed, Ruiz has forever been known for his defense. It's what earned him a spot on the cover of Sports Illustrated last season. Funny, Gross says, because when Ruiz was in the minors, there were more questions about his catching than his hitting.

"He worked so hard on his catching to get to that point where pitchers trust him, and that sort of overrode his hitting," Gross said. "Now he's had the same staff and the guys trust him. He seems more relaxed back there. Each year, the hitting has gone up. Now nobody thought .360 [was possible]. But that's the kind of streak he can get on."

Jonathan Papelbon said he knew nothing of Ruiz before signing with the Phillies. "He was a short Panamanian catcher," Papelbon said.

And now?

"I know he calls a great game," the closer said. "I know he doesn't take his at-bats into his catching. I know he knows how to handle an entire staff. I know he works his butt off. All these things, you don't see from playing against him. You don't see behind the scenes. He's awesome, man. I love him."

To a man, every one of Ruiz's teammates will echo that.

"It's pretty wonderful to see," Cole Hamels said Monday as he glanced at Ruiz, who was being mobbed by reporters.

The way Ruiz tells it, the story is difficult to believe. It's too perfect.

A day after the Phillies were humbled last October in a 1-0 loss to St. Louis in Game 5 of the National League division series, Ruiz went to clean his locker at Citizens Bank Park. Manuel was standing on the field and Ruiz engaged him. He remembers this conversation:

"Before he left, he said, 'Chooch, take care in Panama. Make sure you come in good shape because we need you and we need you healthy.' I said, 'Charlie, I want to do that.' "

Ruiz added muscle in Panama. Everyone noticed when spring training began.

"I'm like, 'Wow,' " Samuel said.

"You don't really appreciate it much until after the season is over," Polanco said. "You're like, 'Wow.' "

When Ruiz finished fielding questions for a half-hour Monday, he tapped on his phone and made plans with his family. He shook hands with strangers he'd never see again. He strutted across the room with his all-star teammates, Hamels and Papelbon.

"It's a special moment," Ruiz said.

He smiled, and it hardly mattered that no one could explain how Carlos Ruiz was here.


Contact Matt Gelb at mgelb@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @magelb.

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