Is Ruiz the answer to Phillies' catching issues?

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Is Ruiz the answer to Phillies' catching issues?

Just over two weeks ago, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. sized up his team and said, “We’ve got catching issues. We need to figure out what we’re going to do behind the plate. That’s crucial.”
 
Catching wasn’t the only area that Amaro referred to as he gazed forward at his offseason to-do list. He also mentioned the bullpen.
 
And the bullpen.
 
And the bullpen.
 
Several Phillies eras have ended recently and more will in the coming weeks. The Phils’ run of five straight NL East titles ended last season, and Charlie Manuel’s successful stewardship ended last month. The Phils are headed toward their first losing season since 2002, so the final pitch of the 2013 season will mark the end of another era.
 
And with that final pitch, one has to wonder if yet another era will end.
 
Popular catcher Carlos Ruiz, who mirrored the Phillies’ ascension to the top of the baseball world with his rise from a nondescript $8,000 signing on a Panama sandlot to Major League All-Star, will be a free agent at season’s end.
 
The man who had the final putout in the Phillies’ 2008 World Series win and so many more in the club’s run of division titles could catch his final game with the team on Sept 29. Ruiz is hoping that won’t be the case. He hopes that the Phillies will sign him to a contract extension over the winter, but it’s not clear whether they will. Ruiz will be 35 in January and until recently had not played well in 2013. Hence, Amaro’s saying, “We’ve got catching issues.”
 
In the two-plus weeks that have passed since Amaro made that comment, Ruiz has picked up his play. He has had his best stretch of the season -- at the plate and behind it. Over his last 16 games, he is hitting .379 (22 for 78) with six doubles, three homers and 10 RBIs. He is swinging more confidently and aggressively and hitting balls harder. He has risen from eighth in the batting order to fourth. Ruiz hit in the middle of the order frequently in 2012, a career year in which he hit .325 with 16 homers and 68 RBIs.
 
Ruiz’s 2012 season, of course, comes with some fine print. He tested positive for a banned stimulant and ended up serving a 25-game suspension at the start of this season. Once he returned, he never got untracked and missed a month with a hamstring injury.
 
When Ruiz was able to get in the lineup, he tried to make up for lost time in a hurry. He pressed.
 
“I felt like I wanted to do everything in one at-bat, and that’s impossible,” he said.
 
Few know Ruiz better than pitching coach Rich Dubee. He could see Ruiz pressing at the plate and behind it.
 
“When he first got back, he really wasn’t the same guy,” Dubee said. “He was trying to catch a young staff at the big-league level that was a rush for many of these kids. He was trying to do stuff with them that you can only do with a more mature pitcher, but it was understandable because he was trying to help them get through games and get them through innings.
 
“The last month or so he’s back to being more the Carlos Ruiz we’ve seen in the past. He’s much more aware of the game going on. I think the suspension and missing time put a weight on him.”
 
Ruiz admits he’s more comfortable now. He is at peace. He is letting his play speak for itself. He will be happy if it leads to a contract extension. He will play somewhere else if it doesn’t.
 
“I want to finish strong and leave it up to Ruben,” Ruiz said.
 
Amaro has noticed Ruiz’s improved play in recent games.
 
“He’s picked it up,” Amaro said. “He’s a little more relaxed. He was thinking catch-up all at once, but now he’s relaxed and playing well again.”
 
Still, what to do at the catching position next season remains a riddle. Brian McCann is the prize of the free-agent market, but he will be expensive and hits left-handed. The Phillies desperately need a productive right-handed bat. A.J. Pierzynski and Jarrod Saltalamacchia are also free agents, but they also hit left-handed. Dioner Navarro is having a nice season with the Cubs and he will be a free agent. Kurt Suzuki could be a free agent if Oakland doesn’t pick up his option.
 
While there are other possibilities out there, re-signing Ruiz could make sense, especially if he continues to impress in September. For one thing, the Phillies could end up with a bargain. Ruiz is making $5 million this season, but his struggles could keep his price tag down and that could free up money to be used in other areas.
 
Dubee believes Ruiz has good years left, but he was frank in saying that Ruiz would be most productive being limited to about 100 games.
 
“I don’t know that he’s a 120-game guy anymore,” Dubee said. “He’s going to be 35. I still think he can catch 90, maybe 100, and be a very effective player for you. You need a guy that probably can catch another 50 games for you.”
 
That guy could be Erik Kratz or Cameron Rupp or someone off the free-agent market like a Navarro.
 
The Phils may be looking for only a short-term answer, a season or two, at catcher. While top catching prospect Tommy Joseph lost a year of development with a concussion issue this season, the Phils have several other catching prospects on the way, including Andrew Knapp, this year’s second-round pick. Scouts think he could be a fast riser.
 
Amaro was right when he said the Phillies have catching issues. But if Carlos Ruiz continues his recent strong play, he could end up being part of the solution.

Best of MLB: Manny Machado in center of bad blood as Red Sox beat Orioles

Best of MLB: Manny Machado in center of bad blood as Red Sox beat Orioles

BALTIMORE -- A tempestuous three-game series between the Red Sox and Baltimore wound up with Matt Barnes being ejected for throwing a fastball behind the head of Orioles star Manny Machado in Boston's 6-2 victory Sunday.

Barnes' ejection was the latest facet of this tense rivalry between AL East rivals. His high, very inside pitch came two days after Machado took out Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia with a spikes-high slide.

Pedroia watched from the dugout for a second straight day Sunday with knee and ankle injuries. Machado apologized with a text message on Friday night, but that evidently wasn't the end of it.

When Machado batted in the sixth inning, Eduardo Rodriguez threw three pitches down and in near the knees. He came up again in the eighth and Barnes' pitch whizzed behind Machado and hit his bat. The ball hit Machado and rolled foul, and plate umpire Andy Fletcher tossed Barnes (see full recap).

Bour's 3-run homer lifts Marlins past Padres
SAN DIEGO -- Justin Bour hit a three-run homer to cap the six-run sixth inning and help the Miami Marlins to a 7-3 victory Sunday against the San Diego Padres.

The first six Marlins batters reached and scored in the sixth, helping Tom Koehler (1-1) to his first win of the season.

San Diego's Luis Perdomo came off the disabled list and shut down the Marlins through five before hitting the wall in the sixth. Martin Prado hit a leadoff single, Christian Yelich walked and Giancarlo Stanton hit an RBI single to chase Perdomo.

Craig Stammen (0-1) came on and allowed Marcell Ozuna's RBI double just past the glove of first baseman Wil Myers and J.T. Realmuto's RBI single to left before Bour hit a no-doubter to right field, his third.

Kevin Quackenbush relieved and got three straight outs (see full recap).

Astros use 2-run 10th to beat Rays
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Brian McCann and Yuli Gurriel both had RBI singles in the 10th inning, and the Houston Astros rallied from an early four-run deficit to beat the Tampa Bay Rays 6-4 on Sunday.

Carlos Beltran opened the 10th by drawing a walk from Ryan Garton (0-1) and went to second on Jose Altuve's single. After reaching third on Carlos Correa's fly to center, Beltran scored to make it 5-4 on McCann's hit to right.

Gurriel's two-out single put Houston ahead 6-4.

Luke Gregerson (1-1) went a scoreless ninth before Ken Giles got three out for his fifth save.

The Astros tied it at 4 on pinch-hitter Evan Gattis' sacrifice fly off closer Alex Colome, who was bidding for a two-inning save, in the ninth.

Brad Miller had an RBI triple, Steven Souza Jr. hit a two-run homer, and Jesus Sucre added a run-scoring single as the Rays went up 4-0 in the first (see full recap).

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

BOX SCORE

A constant theme during the Phillies' playoff run from 2007-11 was that even when the offense was sputtering, it never felt like they were out of a game. That group of players picked up so many late hits and mounted so many comebacks that even a five-run deficit heading into the final three innings felt like a winnable game.

The 2017 Phillies are a much different, much less experienced, much less powerful team, but their late-game offense has been a surprisingly fun development this April.

The Phillies used back-to-back-to-back home runs in the eighth inning Sunday to pick up a 5-2 win over the Braves and a series sweep (see Instant Replay). Cesar Hernandez hit a go-ahead, two-run shot off hard-throwing reliever Arodys Vizcaino. Aaron Altherr followed with a solo shot on the next pitch. The Braves switched pitchers, then Odubel Herrera hit a solo homer of his own.

Just like that, ballgame.

The Phillies lead the majors with six home runs in the eighth inning. That's more than the Cubs, Red Sox, Rockies, Angels, Mariners, Pirates, White Sox, Tigers, Rangers, Giants and Astros have combined.

They've scored 14 runs in the eighth inning and 27 in innings 7-9. Both figures rank third-best in the National League behind only the Diamondbacks and Nationals.

Unexpected late-game heroics and unexpected power from some unlikely sources.

"It's always a bonus to have a team like that," manager Pete Mackanin said. "These guys pull for each other. We have a good bench, we have some interchangeable players that can step in and do a good job. ... They're fighters and it's good to see."

Hernandez continues to open eyes with his developing power. He has four home runs through 18 games after hitting six all of last season. He has more extra-base hits (nine) than Giancarlo Stanton, Kris Bryant, Paul Goldschmidt and Robinson Cano, among many others.

And he's done it without sacrificing his eye at the plate and slap-hitting ability. Hernandez is hitting .338 through 80 at-bats.

Hernandez gained muscle over the winter and reported to spring training looking noticeably bigger, but Mackanin credits the power surge to a change in his swing plane.

"He had an uppercut swing," Mackanin said. "He worked underneath the ball, which made him a low-ball hitter. I think the fact that we convinced him to level out his swing and stay on top of the ball -- work above the ball and work your way down through the strike zone -- I think has not only given him more power but also (the ability) to hit more line drives and use the whole field."

Makes sense. Managers, hitting coaches and players talk all the time about how you don't hit a home run when you're trying to hit a home run, you hit one when you're thinking up the middle and catch the ball with the barrel.

Hernandez hasn't lofted more balls because he's trying to loft them, he's done it by getting stronger and developing a more consistent swing.

"He's an on-base guy and a leadoff hitter and now I'm starting to think of him as a cleanup hitter as well," Mackanin said jokingly. "It is nice. It's good to see. He's not trying to hit home runs. He's trying to hit line drives and when you work above the ball and level your swing out and you hit the bottom half of the ball, the ball is going to go up with a line-drive swing. Because of that, he's hitting more gaps and hitting for more power."

In a way, it's similar to what Herrera did last season, jumping from eight home runs as a rookie to 15 as a sophomore as he continued learning the strike zone, learning major-league pitchers and learning of his own capabilities.

"I love watching Cesar hit the ball," Herrera said. "He has a beautiful swing and he makes great contact on the ball. It's great to be behind him."

With Hernandez leading off and Herrera batting third, the top of the Phillies' lineup has gotten on base a ton. They've gotten a .384 on-base percentage from the 1-3 spots in the order. Just imagine how many additional runs the Phillies would have produced to this point if Maikel Franco or Tommy Joseph were hitting consistently.

"I like all three right there," Mackanin said. "I like Howie Kendrick, also. I'm anxious for him to get back (from the DL) and then we'll go from there. We've got some good things going. We've got a good bench. We've got Altherr, (Daniel) Nava, (Andres) Blanco. We've got (Andrew) Knapp who's doing a good job behind the plate. I think we're in pretty good shape that way."

It's not going to be an explosive, league-leading offense, but it's certainly a deeper offense than it was a year ago. An addition like Nava, for example, has proven to be underrated and pay early dividends. Remember, he was one of the last men chosen for the opening day roster. So far this April, he's succeeded in every role in which the Phillies have used him.

Despite not playing regularly, Nava has reached base in 16 of his first 31 plate appearances, something no first-year Phillie has done since Jeremy Giambi in 2002.

"Nava is really valuable to us," Mackanin said. "He's a part-time player that gives you good at-bats, quality at-bats. He works the count, obviously the first game of the season he showed us he's got power. Gap power and the occasional home run from both sides of the plate. 

"Watching a guy like that, you can't help but notice. If it was me and I was a free swinger, I'd go up to him and ask him, 'How do I tone it down a little bit?' He just doesn't get himself out."