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.”

Rays 7, Phillies 2: Mackanin calls Eickhoff 'a pretty darn good pitcher'

Rays 7, Phillies 2: Mackanin calls Eickhoff 'a pretty darn good pitcher'

BOX SCORE

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Phillies right-hander Jerad Eickhoff pitched two innings, allowed a hit, a run, walked one and struck out two in his spring debut on Monday.

Afterward, manager Pete Mackanin was asked what he believed Eickhoff's ceiling was.

"He's a pretty darn good pitcher right now," Mackanin said.

Indeed, he is.

In his first full season in the majors last year, the 26-year-old right-hander led the Phillies' starting staff in ERA (3.65), starts (33) and innings pitched (197 1/3).

He delivered 20 quality starts and became just the fourth Phillie in the last 20 years to make 33 starts and record a 3.65 ERA or better, joining three pretty good pitchers named Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Curt Schilling. He walked just 1.92 batters per nine innings and that was fourth-best among NL starters.

"Eickhoff is the kind of guy you can count on," Mackanin said. "He throws strikes. He knows what he's doing."

Eickhoff is intent on building on last year's success in 2017. The guy has a Halladay-like work ethic. He arrived in Clearwater on Feb. 1 and got right to work. After his two innings of work on Monday, he put in a couple of hours in the weight room and on a back field running.

"I just have to continue working," he said. "I have a very high standard for myself as a lot of us in here do. We want to be the best players that we can be."

Eickhoff is working on improving his changeup this spring and his overall goal is to make every start -- as he did last season.

"That's the priority -- make every start," he said. "That's always a priority for me.

"I'd also like to incorporate the changeup a little more and use my slider and curveball and not get heavily reliant on one or the other, which happened several times last year and I think got me into trouble at times. So incorporating both for the duration of the season and just being more crisp with execution and location is my goal.

"I'm always looking to get better. I think the sky is the limit. I'm going to continue working, whether it's being Greg Maddux-esque with command or having a good breaking ball, or throwing a changeup like Maddux and guys like that did. There's always something I'm working on and trying to develop and sharpen up."

Eickhoff lines up to start the second game of the regular season behind projected opening day starter Jeremy Hellickson.

The game
The Phillies lost to the Tampa Bay Rays, 7-2. The Phils are 2-2 on the spring.

Maikel Franco had two hits, including his third homer of the spring. It was a long drive to left field on a 1-2 fastball. He also had a single to right field.

"The thing I like early in the spring from him is he's going deeper into counts," Mackanin said. "I think he's working toward a good year this year."

Stassi impresses
Non-roster player Brock Stassi, a candidate to win a job as a reserve first baseman and outfielder (see story), did not play in the game. He, however, has a single, double and homer in the first three games.

Mackanin gushed about Stassi’s defense when asked about it Monday.

"He's one of the best first basemen I've seen in a real long time," Mackanin said. "He has no need to improve on his defense and I like the way he swings the bat. He's a real solid baseball player so he's a guy I really want to get a good look at."

Pitching matters
Starting pitchers Jake Thompson and Zach Eflin are both projected to pitch at Triple A. Both have been slowed early in camp because of health reasons, but are progressing well. Thompson has a sore right wrist and Eflin is recovering from a pair of surgeries to address tendinitis in both knees.

Both pitchers will continue to throw in the bullpen this week and ramp up to live batting practice next week. There is plenty of time for both pitchers to get their arms ready to open the season. However, the Phillies may decide to take a cautious approach with Eflin and let him build some more strength in his knees before they turn him loose. He could stay in Florida for a couple of extra weeks before joining the Triple A club.

Up next
The Phillies host the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday. Clay Buchholz will make his first start of the spring. Here is the Phillies' posted starting lineup for the game:

1. Freddy Galvis, SS
2. Howie Kendrick, LF
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Michael Saunders, DH
6. Tommy Joseph, 1B
7. Chris Coghlan, RF
8. Cameron Rupp, C
9. Scott Kingery, 2B

MLB Notes: Josh Hamilton undergoes knee surgery

MLB Notes: Josh Hamilton undergoes knee surgery

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Josh Hamilton has had another surgery on his balky left knee, ending any chance of the 2010 AL MVP making the Texas Rangers' opening day roster.

The arthroscopic procedure Monday was to repair some damaged meniscus cartilage in his left knee. There were no issues with the surgically repaired ACL in that knee.

Hamilton had left spring training in Arizona and returned to Houston for the second time in less than a week to be examined by Dr. Walt Lowe, who also performed Hamilton's season-ending surgery last June.

The latest knee procedure is the 11th in Hamilton's career, and the third since the 35-year-old slugger last played in the majors in 2015.

Hamilton, in camp on a minor league contract, faces six weeks of rehabilitation before he will be able to start running again.

Orioles: Bourn broke finger during football drill
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Baltimore outfielder Michael Bourn hasn't played football since his sophomore year in high school. But it's a pigskin injury that's preventing him from playing this spring for the Orioles.

On Friday, the speedy 34-year-old broke his right ring finger catching a football at a workout. Bourn, who signed a minor league contract on Feb. 20, will be out for four weeks, making it difficult for him to be ready for Baltimore's April 3 opener. He'll make $2 million if he's put on the 40-man roster.

Bourn has difficult competition. Another veteran major league outfielder, Craig Gentry, signed two days before, plus the Orioles want to take long looks at Rule 5 outfielders Anthony Santander and Aneury Tavarez. Joey Rickard, a Rule 5 pick who played with the team last season, is also a serious contender.

Because he signed late, Bourn hadn't played.

"I was ready to go and pretty much ready to get into games the next couple days and now I've got to wait a about four weeks to heal. I want it to heal correctly but I want to push it, too. There's really nothing I can do about it," he said. (see full story)

Indians: Kipnis sidelined by shoulder injury
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Cleveland Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis has a rotator cuff strain and will stop throwing for a couple days.

Kipnis got a cortisone shot on Saturday, and manager Terry Francona didn't sound very worried about the situation.

"If it was during the season we wouldn't do anything," Francona said before Sunday's spring game against the Chicago Cubs in Mesa. "There's so much time to get ready that to kind of put a Band-Aid on it now didn't seem to make sense."

The 29-year-old Kipnis hit .275 with 23 homers and 82 RBIs last season, helping Cleveland to the AL Central title. He added four more homers and eight RBIs in the playoffs as the Indians made it all the way to the World Series before losing to the Cubs in seven games.

Kipnis had been on a shoulder program.

"I would say probably eight out of 10 guys, as they get their arms loose, you feel something," Francona said. "You throw through stuff and you get through the aches and pains of getting back, but then when there is some history there, you just try to use good judgment.

"He can do all his cardio and everything and all that stuff, but throwing is shut down for four to five days. I don't think he's going to hit today."

The Indians also announced left-hander Tim Cooney will be sidelined for 10 to 12 weeks because of a muscle strain in his arm. Cooney went 1-0 with a 3.16 ERA in six starts with St. Louis last season and was claimed off waivers from the Cardinals in November.

"Originally, they thought it was forearm," Francona said. "It's lower than that. By all accounts, it is an extremely unique area."