Smiling Ruiz becomes serious catcher

Smiling Ruiz becomes serious catcher

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The ball hugged the third-base line as it bounded toward left field. This wasn't a problem for Carlos Ruiz, who scooped it up on the second bounce, threw across his body and nabbed the phantom runner at first base.

A modest fist-pump followed, then an approving nod from Pedro Feliz, who looked as if he learned something. Such was a recent morning at Bright House Field for Ruiz, the second baseman-turned-catcher, who enjoys a round of infield practice as much as the next guy.

Perhaps more.

"I can pick it," Ruiz said, smiling. "I like to do that. I used to play infield, and that makes me feel good. It helps keep my legs strong."

Ruiz went so far as to offer to switch positions occasionally with Feliz, in the event that manager Charlie Manuel would allow it.

Feliz is just as fine with the status quo.

"I'll stay here," said Feliz, who caught for one-third of an inning for the Giants last season.

Fielding grounders temporarily spares Ruiz from thinking about catching during down time. For the 29-year-old, feeling comfortable has been the key to seeing his boisterous personality emerge this spring.

Ruiz has been caught smiling a lot, whether he's making a joke or is the butt of one. His distinct pronunciations of words are a constant source of amusement for teammates -- and it has nothing to do with the language barrier.

"His English is much better than people think," said Chris Coste, who speaks fluent Spanish. "He's as big a jokester and fun-loving guy as there is -- and often in English. That's why he's one of the most loved guys on the team."

Although a good example of Ruiz's wit isn't necessarily printable -- you'll have to take Coste's word for it -- it speaks of his ability to evolve from a shy rookie who could barely order a pizza to a dependable catcher expected to take a leap forward at the plate this season.

Despite his prowess at third base, Ruiz's defensive skills have already been lauded. Even though he's thrown out only 25 percent of runners on base, his strong throwing arm has kept base stealers close at first, for fear of a snap pickoff move. Ruiz's game-calling has also improved.

"It's all confidence," said pitcher Jamie Moyer. "You sense that he feels a part of this group, and that's important in the role he plays. There were a lot of times last year when I said, 'You call the game.'"

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With a runner on second, Ruiz works hitters inside to make going to the right side and moving the runner over more difficult. He notices a batter's footwork, recognizes swings better and can read whether an opponent is pulling off the ball or diving in front of the plate.

Then he calls pitches accordingly.

"He's getting a feel for it," said catching instructor Mick Billmeyer. "He stands behind his [game-calling] convictions. He had a hard time with that early in his career, but he's getting better forcing [pitchers] to do things when the situation calls for it. That's them liking him and feeling confident with him and him being sure of himself. He's gained their trust."

The Phillies are content with Ruiz, who drove in a run on Wednesday against the Rays at Progress Energy Park. He's expected to start 130 games in 2008, with Coste handling the rest.

Manuel figures that Ruiz will become a vocal presence on the field.

"The catcher is the leader on the team," Manuel said. "He's the one who puts the fingers down. A veteran pitcher can help him, but the catcher has to be the leader. Ruiz has come a long way in a short time."

Ruiz said that he's getting there.

"I need to keep working," he said. "I definitely feel comfortable on the field. I learned a lot last year, and now I have a year in the big leagues. I notice a lot more, but I still learn something new every day."

Ken Mandel is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.