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.”