CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) — Hours before the Philadelphia Phillies played an exhibition game, Darin Ruf had sweat dripping down his face and soaking through his grey T-shirt.
Just another day at the ballpark.
Ruf's pregame routine this spring includes plenty of extra work. After all, he's trying to learn a new position. The minor-league home run champion is adjusting to left field after playing first base almost exclusively since his days at Creighton.
So far, it's been a slow process.
“I've been trying to improve every single day,” Ruf said. “It wasn't what I expected myself to be defensively right off the bat. I'm getting in as much work before the game as I can, working with the coordinators, taking as many fly balls as possible. I think I've come a long way. Hopefully it'll transfer into the game.”
The Phillies were hoping Ruf would be ready to start opening day. He'd fit perfectly in a left-handed heavy lineup that includes Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in the Nos. 3 and 4 spots.
But the team has no plans to rush him if his defense isn't up to par. At this point, it seems likely that Ruf will open the season at Class AAA Lehigh Valley to gain more experience.
“He really hasn't played the outfield before and it's a challenge,” General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. “It's hard enough to be a major league outfielder and be adequate. It may require him some more time; it may not. It depends on how he finishes out this camp. He has a good head on his shoulders and he has a lot of ability, so it's a matter of him continuing to learn. We think eventually he can make himself an adequate outfielder, but that remains to be seen. That's why we're giving him reps out there and seeing whether he can do it or not.”
The 26-year-old Ruf burst on the scene last year when he started hitting bombs with regularity at Class AA Reading, earning the nickname “Babe.” He smacked 38 homers, including 20 in August. He hit three more in 33 at-bats with the Phillies in September, and tore up the Venezuelan League in winter ball.
His 38 homers at Reading broke Howard's former club record. Howard, the former NL MVP, is blocking Ruf's path at first base. That's why he's in left now.
Ruf made a couple errors early in the spring and is still learning the nuances of playing the outfield. It requires more than just catching fly balls.
“I've been working on the fundamentals of throwing,” he said. “It's a little different arm action than in the infield and I put some strain on my arm early on, but hopefully I corrected that. I'm also working on my drop steps. I had been passive going after the ball the first few weeks so I'm really working on being aggressive the first couple steps, running to the ball instead of running with it.”
Another part of playing the outfield that gets little attention is the ability to take the right angle to balls on hits and keeping runners from taking the extra base. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel stresses the importance of preventing runners from going from first to third on singles and holding guys to singles on balls in the gaps.
“That's a lot of the mental part of playing in the outfield,” Ruf said. “I've talked to a lot of veteran players about that and they stress it's even more important to know what you are going to do before it happens, know who the runners are, know that if a catcher is hitting you may have a little more time on a ball hit down the line than if a speedster is up there.”
The Phillies won the World Series in 2008 with Pat Burrell in left field and were NL champions the following year with Raul Ibanez out there. Both were slow-footed, older players with limited range. If Ruf can just reach their level, he'll be in the big leagues soon.
“I think he'll end up being similar to those guys and that would be enough, particularly if he's swinging the bat the way we think he can swing the bat,” Amaro said. “Still, that's a question mark. He did it in Double-A. We think he's got the ability to be an offensive producer. It's not easy.”
Manuel is much more certain about Ruf's potential at the plate. Ruf has struggled in the spring, hitting .195 with one homer and seven RBIs in 41 at-bats.
“His bat is going to carry him,” Manuel said. “I'm convinced he's a good hitter. I don't worry about him if he goes 3 for 30 or 0 for 20. He's been trying too hard in his hitting. He puts a lot of burden on himself. Once he works through that, he'll be fine.”
Ruf admitted the stress of learning to play left field has affected him at the plate. He also has been a slow starter at the plate throughout his minor-league career, too.
“I try to do the best job I can separating the two,” he said. “I never really had huge spring trainings in minor-league camp. It takes me a while to get my timing back, figure out my balance. It's been a little tough. I haven't even felt great in the cage, so it's hard to translate into the game when you don't feel great in there. You just have to battle at the plate and once I start to feel better, it'll come. I'm not really concerned about my hitting.”
If Ruf doesn't start the season with the Phillies, he's not going to sulk about it. Manuel expects him to contribute this season, and Ruf plans to make sure he forces his way into the lineup.
“I would be disappointed, but just because you are disappointed doesn't mean you are going to stop working,” he said. “You have to get right back out there the next day and work hard. Even if I make the opening day roster, I still have to work hard to keep that job.”
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