Ruggiano opening Rays' eyes this spring

Ruggiano opening Rays' eyes this spring

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Justin Ruggiano is lighting it up this spring.

The 27-year-old outfielder entered Friday night's game against the Yankees hitting .483 with one double, two triples, three home runs and 11 RBIs.

Unfortunately for him, trying to make the Rays' squad as an outfielder this spring is no small order considering the presence of Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Gabe Kapler and Matt Joyce, all of whom stand as large impediments to that happening.

But Ruggiano hasn't let his situation poison his performance, and he's being noticed.

"[He's having a] real nice spring, very quietly," manager Joe Maddon said. "[He's had] good at-bat after good at-bat. ... He's been doing everything well."

Maddon acknowledged that Ruggiano is in a tough situation, but he also has tried to let Ruggiano know how highly he regards him.

"I just keep telling him to keep doing what he's doing," Maddon said. "He has to know from us that we believe he is a big league player, and we do believe that. He's just in a tough spot right now, but he's definitely going about his business the right way.

"He's making a lot of improvements, including with two strikes. He's doing some different things with two strikes, which is [putting] the ball in play more consistently than he has."

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Ruggiano fought hard to win a spot on the 25-man roster last spring only to be one of the final roster cuts. He admitted that he let being cut get under his skin, and it showed when he got off to a slow start at Triple-A Durham.

But a lot of things were going on in Ruggiano's life at the time: His wife, Shelly, was pregnant with the couple's first child, Brooks Ryan, who was born later that summer. Ruggiano knew he needed some positive vibes, so he called his friend, Carlos Pena.

"He's such an optimistic person. I wasn't hitting well at the time," Ruggiano said. "I told him everything I had going on at the time. He told me a few things: 'Ruge, when I see you get your foot down early and see the ball well, you hit so well.' "

Pena smiled when asked about that conversation, which covered life and hitting.

"The principles of hitting ... You can talk about that any time, because they stand whether you're going good or bad," Pena said. "There's a difference between knowing what to do and executing. I love the kid. We talk often. He knows he can call me any time and I'm going to have an ear."

Ruggiano worked out of his funk and finished the season at .253, with 15 home runs and 72 RBIs. Perhaps most important, he came away with a different outlook, and he is now better equipped to handle adversity.

"In the past, I might have gotten wrapped up in things I couldn't control," he said. "This year, I just want to play. Some people treat Spring Training as a time to get ready. I wanted to come in and show what I'm capable of doing.

"They've probably never seen me hot, because they've never seen me play on a regular basis. So I was glad to come in and get off to a good start. Then again, it's just Spring Training."

By playing well, Ruggiano can not only open the Rays' eyes, he can open the eyes of other Major League teams, even though he hopes to make the big leagues with Tampa Bay.

"I really like what this organization is about," he said. "And I see the similarities between this year and 2008. The signs are pointing to this team being a winner. I feel very confident in the chemistry of this team, and I want to be a part of it, whether it's the start of the season or [if I] come up in July or September.

"I just want to take the approach this year that when they are ready for me, I want to be on my 'A' game, so that I can come up and help contribute to a winning team."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.