Darin Ruf’s a work in progress learning to play leftfield for Phillies

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Darin Ruf, taking a grounder at his natural position of first base, is no natural yet in leftfield.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Darin Ruf, taking a grounder at his natural position of first base, is no natural yet in leftfield.
Posted: March 05, 2013

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Darin Ruf thought he had a chance to make a diving catch, but as he closed in and the ball accelerated to the ground, it just wasn't going to happen.

And then came the sprint of shame: The converted first baseman had to hurry to the leftfield wall to retrieve the ball and heave it back to the infield to make up for the fielding miscue.

"Those are the balls that, as they happen, I'll get a better feel of whether it's, 'I might be able to catch this ball,' or if I should let it fall for a single," Ruf said Sunday morning, 3 days after his two-base error at Bright House Field against the Atlanta Braves. "And sure, I could have pulled up on that ball . . . I didn't know. Now I know I can't get to it."

Ruf's transition to the outfield, which began late last summer, will be a work in progress this spring. He started and played five innings in leftfield Sunday against Toronto and had an encouraging afternoon.

Ruf completed an inning-ending doubleplay in the third inning when he caught a fly ball and fired a strike home to nab Adam Lind attempting to score.

It was a baby step for the baby-faced Ruf, the 26-year-old power hitter who homered his way into the Phillies organization's plans in 2012 but has been overshadowed by the competition in the first 2 weeks of camp.

While Domonic Brown has began to show the potential people inside the organization have been waiting for in the last 2 years, Ruf is off to a slow start in his first Grapefruit League schedule. Ruf went 0-for-5 on Sunday with two strikeouts.

He's hitting .143 (3-for-21) with one double, six strikeouts and one walk in seven games.

"He's all right, he'll be OK," Manuel said of Ruf, recalling a few hard balls he hit Friday in Tampa that went foul or were caught for outs. "I'm not worried about him. In spring training, sometimes it takes you a while to get going. I've seen guys have terrible springs. I remember we were releasing Aaron Rowand every day. He didn't have a chance, then he ended up hitting .313 and getting $60 million. He'll figure it out."

Just as Brown was almost destined to succeed this spring, sporting lacklucker overall numbers in the last 2 years, Ruf was almost certainly going to run into some stretch of failure.

Ruf, a 20th-round pick out of Creighton in the 2009 draft, was among the dozens of anonymous players in minor league camp this time last year. He went on to lead all minor leaguers in home runs in 2012 while at Double A Reading (a franchise-record 38) and was named the Eastern League MVP. He continued to mash after leaving the minors, hitting three home runs in a short stint with the Phillies in September and then 10 more in the Venezuelan Winter League.

After hitting 51 home runs in 2012, Ruf, who earned the moniker "Babe" for his power-hitting prowess, almost had to be among Grapefruit League home-run leaders to continue the legend he built last summer. It's the kind of expectation that is impossible for even the best athletes to ignore.

"A little bit," Ruf said, when asked if it was difficult to drown out the hype that comes with success. "But spring training is spring training. You're going to make mistakes, you're going to have to make adjustments at the plate."

Without a mental Rolodex of major league pitchers to draw from, Ruf, who has played in all of 12 big-league games, has kept an open dialogue with his more-veteran teammates and the large contingent of accomplished coaches in camp, including Hall of Famers and fellow righthanded power hitters Mike Schmidt and Ryne Sandberg.

"To be able to bounce ideas off of them, get their input, just talk to them about hitting - it's huge," Ruf said. "Then you can take that and apply it into your own game; they might work or they might not work, but they're always there to help and they're not going to not stop trying. If one thing doesn't work, they'll try something else. And keep trying until they find that thing that helps you click."

A little more than a week into the Grapefruit schedule, Ruf's bat hasn't clicked yet. It's not that he looks overmatched at the plate, but he's still trying to find his timing and get into a rhythm.

Ruf will have an opportunity to get started Monday against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton, where Manuel has him hitting fifth and sandwiched between the team's two hottest hitters, Ryan Howard and Brown.

"I think it's just a matter of time for him," Manuel said.

The Phillies don't open the season until 4 weeks from today. Ruf has plenty of time to get into the race for a roster spot.

The start of spring training hasn't been ideal, at least from a statistical standpoint, but it hasn't been a waste, either. From sitting next to veteran Laynce Nix in the clubhouse to shagging fly balls with Chase Utley during batting practice, Ruf is gaining valuable insight on a daily basis.

"Mike [Young, the third baseman] talked to me after that play," Ruf said, referring to Thursday's error. "He said when you have a pitcher cruising like Cole [Hamels] was that day, it's not a bad thing to just let that thing fall. He's one pitch away from a doubleplay to get out of the inning. So, taking all of that into account will ultimately make me a better position player."

And for Ruf - and the Phillies, too - the sooner the better.

"I'd love to make the team out of camp," he said. "I feel like I can help the team win. But I do feel like I have to prove that I can help them win. Like I said, right now it might not be about results, but going in, having quality at-bats and showing I can make the routine play in the outfield and limit my mistakes out there. Those are the things I'm most concerned about. Finding my timing, getting into a rhythm and routine that will help me be successful in the year ahead."

On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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