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: Indians pick up 27th win in last 28 games

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Best of MLB: Indians pick up 27th win in last 28 games

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- It's time for the 2017 Cleveland Indians to be introduced to the one and only 1884 Providence Grays.

They share some unlikely history, the two teams, which played a mere 141 years apart, are the only two clubs to have ever won 27 out of 28 games.

The Indians joined the Grays on Thursday when Francisco Lindor's three-run homer led Cleveland to a 4-1 victory and three-game sweep of the Los Angeles Angels.

The Grays ended up winning 28 of 29, leaving the Indians one game shy of matching the record (see full recap).

Cubs rally in 9th, beat Brewers to open big series
MILWAUKEE -- Javier Baez grounded a tying single with two outs in the ninth inning, Kris Bryant hit a two-run homer in the 10th and the Chicago Cubs widened their NL Central lead over Milwaukee, beating the Brewers 5-3 Thursday night.

The Cubs now are 4 1/2 games ahead of the Brewers after winning the opener of a four-game series.

Milwaukee was in position to win it in the bottom of the ninth, loading the bases with one out. But Wade Davis (4-1) struck out Domingo Santana and then, after falling behind 3-1 in the count to Orlando Arcia, came back to retire him on an easy comebacker on a full-count pitch.

The Cubs trailed 3-2 when Ian Happ led off the ninth by hitting a grounder that first baseman Neil Walker fielded wide of the bag. Reliever Jeremy Jeffress covered first and Happ was called safe in a close play, a ruling upheld on replay (see full recap).

Twins rout Tigers, lead AL wild card by 2½ games
DETROIT -- With a postseason berth tantalizingly close, the Minnesota Twins snapped out of their mini-slump in emphatic fashion.

Joe Mauer and Jorge Polanco had three hits each, and the Twins extended their lead for the American League's second wild card by beating the Detroit Tigers 12-1 on Thursday night. Minnesota is 2 games ahead of the Angels in the race for the AL's final postseason spot. Los Angeles lost earlier in the day to Cleveland .

The Twins had lost five of six coming into the night, including a three-game sweep at the hands of the New York Yankees, but they routed a depleted Detroit team that is 4-17 in September after trading Justin Verlander and Justin Upton.

"As a whole in this season, it's been pretty impressive," Minnesota manager Paul Molitor said. "Staying away from the long losing streaks, coming back from some tough losses and some tough stretches and getting back to playing winning baseball, for the most part,” (see full recap).

Fowler delivers again as Cardinals beat Reds
CINCINNATI -- The St. Louis Cardinals rinsed the bad taste of being swept by the Chicago Cubs the best way they could -- sweeping the Cincinnati Reds.

Dexter Fowler delivered again, hitting two doubles and a single as St. Louis overcame Scott Schebler's two home runs to beat the Reds 8-5 Thursday night.

The Cardinals began the day 2 games behind Colorado for the second NL wild-card spot and five games behind the Central-leading Cubs.

Fowler drove in two runs. He went 7 for 13 with two home runs and six RBIs in the three-game series (see full recap).

Despite series finale loss to Dodgers, Phillies show they can 'compete with the best teams in the league'

Despite series finale loss to Dodgers, Phillies show they can 'compete with the best teams in the league'

BOX SCORE

In the end, things reverted to form: The Dodgers won and the Phillies lost.

The Dodgers are headed to the playoffs, the Phillies to who-knows-where.

Los Angeles scored twice in the seventh inning Thursday afternoon to beat the Phils, 5-4, and salvage the finale of a four-game series (see observations).

The Dodgers, the majors’ best team at 97-56, lowered their magic number to one for clinching a fifth straight NL West championship. The Phils, baseball’s second-worst team at 61-92, were left with a lovely parting gift: hope.

“I think it’s a good lesson,” J.P. Crawford, the rookie shortstop-turned-third baseman, said of the series as a whole. “It showed us, or showed me, we can compete with the best teams in the league. Just can’t wait to see what next year has in store for us.”

Crawford, the 16th overall pick in 2013, drew three walks in four plate appearances and fielded eight chances flawlessly, at least four of which could be described as moderately difficult.

In addition, Mark Leiter Jr. pitched six strong innings, Rhys Hoskins did another Rhys Hoskins thing — i.e., hit a two-run double in the fifth — and Nick Williams launched a two-run homer.

So it was that the Phillies finished the homestand with a 7-3 record. They have won eight of their last 12, and are 32-34 since the All-Star break, after going 29-58 beforehand.

There are those who question how much it means for an also-ran to excel in September, when the pressure is off. It would appear that Phillies manager Pete Mackanin is not among those people. He mentioned in particular how valuable it is for his young relievers to face teams in the thick of the race.

“To get this kind of experience is worth a lot,” he said. “It’s a big part of this year.”

One of those relievers, Ricardo Pinto, faltered Thursday, allowing those two seventh-inning runs to take the loss. But Leiter, who had pitched to a 9.39 ERA in three previous September starts, allowed just one earned run on five hits over his six innings of work. He struck out three and walked one.

So it’s one for his résumé going forward. And he said a strong finish to the season — the Phils have nine games left — is “important for everybody.”

“I don't know if it's more important for us than other teams,” he said, “but you want to finish strong and start strong. Those are the goals. That's baseball. You're going to have some ups and downs, and to take a series is a good thing.”

Crawford, called up from Triple A Lehigh Valley on Sept. 5, hit .200 without a walk in his first six major-league games. In his last nine, he is slashing .296/.474/.481, with 10 walks and seven strikeouts in 38 plate appearances.

“Just a matter of getting my feet settled down,” he said, “and just being comfortable in the box.”

“It’s good to see,” Mackanin said. “He was advertised as someone who controls the strike zone and he’s proven that he can do that. Walk’s as good as a hit — the old saying. He keeps innings alive and he doesn’t expand the strike zone, he makes the pitcher get him out and he’ll take a walk, which is important.”

Speaking generally about such an approach (and not about Crawford in particular), Mackanin had only one small reservation.

“One of the problems with a guy who walks too often is you’d like him to be a little more aggressive at times,” he said, “but in general it’s good to see.”

Crawford made his eighth start at third base, and while he doesn’t possess the power bat normally required of someone who plays the position, he certainly looks like he can hold his own with the glove.

“There’s not really much transition,” he said. “I’m just going over there, reacting, catching the ball, throwing the ball.”

If nothing else, he gives the Phillies a possible alternative to Maikel Franco, who has struggled all year.

And if nothing else, the team as a whole has shown there is some reason for hope.