Don't call it a comeback for Carlos Ruiz

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Don't call it a comeback for Carlos Ruiz

When he stepped to the plate, the crowd clapped loudly. Then came the familiar refrain, the long, drawn-out collective chorus that stretches his nickname from South Philly to South Street. Choooooooch, they cried. And there he was.

Carlos Ruiz hadn’t played a game for the Phillies since hurting his hamstring back on May 19. He wasn’t supposed to play a game for the Phillies on Tuesday, either. The catcher was scheduled to make a rehab appearance for Double A Reading on Tuesday and Wednesday. Then the schedule changed and he was activated. The schedule has a way of doing that when the other options at catcher aren’t really options at all.

In his first at-bat, Ruiz pushed a soft, looping bloop into right field. Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth could have caught the ball, but it slipped beneath his glove, and the official scorer gave Ruiz a hit. The crowd was pleased with all of that -- Ruiz’s return, the hit, Werth’s mistake, the whole thing seemed to delight the Citizens Bank Park assembly.

In his second and third at-bats, Ruiz struck out and grounded out, but the Phillies beat the Nationals, 4-2 (see Instant Replay).

About the injury, Ruiz said he’s fine, that he doesn’t “feel anything,” and that he’s “almost running normal.” He swore his accelerated return had nothing to do with the other catchers -- the ones not named Erik Kratz (who’s also injured) -- and their lack of production. Ruiz said he wanted to return early because he feels “great,” which evidently dovetails with that part he said about not feeling anything.

However he actually feels, he’s back. How he will hit now that he’s in the lineup is another matter. Charlie Manuel started Ruiz out in the eight hole on Tuesday as a way to ease him back into things.

“That was my thinking -- put him down there and let him get some at-bats,” Manuel said. “On nights we have a good night, he’ll get four at-bats. On nights we aren’t getting runs, he’ll get three, probably. We’ll see where he’s at.”

Where he was before the injury wasn’t a good place. It has not been an easy year for Ruiz. He missed the first 25 games of the season after violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Then he played 16 games. Then he hurt his hamstring. Then he had to press pause on the season again.

In those 16 games, Ruiz hit .235/.286/.275 with just two RBIs. He didn’t have a home run. He still doesn’t. All that after having his best season at the plate last year when he was named an All-Star and hit .325/.394/.540 with 16 home runs and 68 RBIs.

At the moment, this version of Ruiz is a long way from looking like that version of Ruiz. But how long might it take to resemble even an old approximation of the Chooch train that chugged up the hitting hill?

“I don’t want to think about that,” Ruiz said. “Just one at-bat at a time. Sometimes you get your timing back right away. Maybe you don’t have it. For me, I go up there and play good defense, call a good game and win the game.”

How he handles the staff might be the most pressing concern in the short term. As of Tuesday, the Phillies had the seventh-worst team ERA in the majors.

“I want him to be a really good catcher for now,” Manuel said. “I want him to throw, block balls and call the games like he always has, and his hitting will be a plus to us. I’m sure he’ll hit enough to hold his own. He’ll get a big hit for you sometimes. But his defense and game-calling means a whole lot to us. We’ve had some trouble with that.

“I don’t mean it was a problem, I mean that he’s been very good at it. I shouldn’t say it was a problem. Hopefully I can take that back.

“He does a really good job for us. He’s been a really solid catcher for us for two-and-a-half, three years. He does a tremendous job for us on defense, and in the last year-and-a-half when he came into his own as a hitter, it’s been big for us.”

Tonight's lineup: Tommy Joseph's last start of the year?

Tonight's lineup: Tommy Joseph's last start of the year?

Tommy Joseph, who has been missing from the lineup lately, starts at first base and bats fourth tonight.

Joseph will most likely be making his final start of the season with Ryan Howard expected to start the final games of the season. Joseph is batting just .235 against the Braves this season, but does have two home runs. The rookie first baseman has 21 home runs and 15 doubles in 104 games during his first season in the majors. 

Howard will be playing what are almost definitely his final games in a Phillies uniform this weekend vs. the Mets.

Maikel Franco bats fifth and plays third base. Franco, who has been hot lately, has three home runs and is batting .320 over his last 25 at-bats. He will look to continue his success against the Braves, as five of his 25 home runs this season have come against them.

Cameron Rupp gets a day off behind the plate and will be replaced by veteran catcher A.J. Ellis. Ellis has exceeded expectations in a short sample since coming over in the Carlos Ruiz trade last month. Ellis is 8 for 28 with a home run and nine RBIs in 10 games with the Phils. He's batting .285, which is astronomically better than his paltry .194 mark with the Dodgers. 

Part of the reason for Ellis' start could be his history against Braves starter Josh Collmenter. He is 4 for 11 with two home runs and four walks against the former Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher.

Here is tonight's lineup:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Tommy Joseph, 1B
5. Maikel Franco, 3B
6. Cody Asche, LF
7. A.J. Ellis, C
8. Aaron Altherr, RF
9. Jeremy Hellickson, P

And for the Braves:

1. Mallex Smith, CF
2. Dansby Swanson, SS
3. Freddie Freeman, 1B
4. Matt Kemp, LF
5. Nick Markakis, RF
6. Anthony Recker, C
7. Jace Peterson, 2B
8. Rio Ruiz, 3B
9. Josh Collmenter, P

Phillies MVP Jerad Eickhoff proved people wrong, changed expectations

Phillies MVP Jerad Eickhoff proved people wrong, changed expectations

It feels appropriate with the season coming to an end and the recent struggles of the Phillies' entire pitching staff to again point out how consistent Jerad Eickhoff has been in 2016.

Tuesday's rain delay likely cost him a shot at reaching 200 innings — he's sitting on 191⅓ with one start left — but his season has obviously been a success whether or not he reaches that mark. 

Some may argue Odubel Herrera has been the Phillies' MVP this season, but I'd go Eickhoff. Maybe that's just based on the inconsistencies of his rotation mates, but there's real value in a guy who gives you six quality innings each time out. Eickhoff this season was basically John Lackey — a reliable mid-rotation workhorse with solid but unspectacular numbers.

ESPN's longtime prospect analyst Keith Law mentioned Eickhoff this week in an Insider post looking at players he judged incorrectly. Eickhoff and Cubs Cy Young candidate Kyle Hendricks were the first two pitchers mentioned.

In his assessment of what went wrong with his initial evaluation of Eickhoff, Law wrote:

"I hadn't seen Eickhoff in the minors and, based on what I'd heard about him, had him as a back-end starter, saying he had the repertoire to start but giving him a limited, back-end ceiling. Eickhoff had a good curveball with Texas. But the Phillies' staff has encouraged him to throw it more often, and it's been a difference-making pitch for him. His curve accounted for 40 percent of his swings and misses in 2016, and it's one of the most effective curveballs in MLB right now; that pitch alone has made him more than just a back-end starter, and he has been the Phillies' most valuable starter this year. He is probably a league-average, No. 3 starter going forward with the arsenal he has — average fastball, plus curveball, inconsistent slider that flashes plus but on which he makes too many mistakes — and with 4-WAR potential, given his durability."

Eickhoff's curveball was what made a lot of us take notice late last season. He used it to shut down some good lineups in September, and he finished 2015 with back-to-back seven-inning, 10-strikeout games against the Nationals and Mets.

This season, he grew up. He incorporated the slider more and that led him out of an early-season funk. Early in the year, hitters were laying off his curveball and swinging at any fastball near the zone because it's a hittable pitch. Once he started showing another breaking ball, the game plan for the opposition became more complicated.

There was nothing fluky about Eickhoff's 2016 season. He'll enter the final day of the season 11-14 with a 3.72 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. 

It's pretty startling to compare Eickhoff's numbers since joining the Phillies to Cole Hamels' with the Rangers. Have a look.

• Hamels with the Rangers (44 starts): 3.42 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 2.8 K/BB ratio, .244 opponents' batting average

• Eickhoff with the Phillies (40 starts): 3.49 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 3.9 K/BB ratio, .244 opponents' batting average

It's not an apples to apples comparison because Hamels has pitched about 40 more innings than Eickhoff in a tougher league and in a tougher ballpark. It doesn't mean that going forward they will be equals. It just means that over the last season and a half, their production has been close to equal.

Nobody would have expected a year ago that Eickhoff would be the best piece in that trade. But until Jorge Alfaro and Nick Williams graduate to the majors in full-time roles and produce, Eickhoff will be the unexpected centerpiece of that blockbuster deal with the Rangers.

He's a walking example of solid scouting and even better player development by the Phillies.

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