It was as poignant a moment a collision at home plate could be. Not quite a passing of the torch or a gathering of great baseball minds, but something deeper than that. It was as fleeting as any pitch in a game, but no less trenchant.
There, piled in a heap in front of home plate on a bang-bang play to end the visiting half of the fourth inning during Friday night’s game between the Phillies and Nationals were two catchers. There was Pudge, the veteran from Puerto Rico, often regarded as the best backstop of his generation in a line of great catchers with fantastic nicknames.
There was Buck, Gabby, Mickey, Yogi, Campy, Johnny, Kid, Pudge Fisk, Piazza, Joe Mauer and Pudge Rodriguez. A 14-time All-Star, one-time AL MVP and probable first-ballot Hall of Famer, modern catchers don’t come any more esteemed or well-rounded than Pudge Rodriguez.
Yet there he was being helped up off the ground by an up-and-comer from Panama nicknamed, Chooch. In his fourth full big-league season after being converted from the infield, Chooch Ruiz isn’t any threat to Pudge’s 10 seasons in which he batted .300 or his 13 Gold Glove Awards, but when it comes to October there are very few catchers in baseball history as good as Carlos Joaquin Ruiz. In 11 World Series games, the .353 batting average and 1.194 OPS is nothing to sneeze at. Mix in 10 games in the NLCS and Ruiz’s average holds steady at .349 with 10 of his 22 hits going for extra bases.
Not even the great Johnny Bench’s postseason stats would be nearly as good as Ruiz’s if his 1976 World Series performance hadn’t skewed the numbers.
So yes, Pudge Rodriguez knows all about Chooch Ruiz. Helped off the ground after Friday night’s collision, the future Hall of Famer took a long second to give his counterpart a tap on the head and a few kind words of respect.
That pause and acknowledgement from Pudge played louder than any “Choooooooch!” cheer from the fans at Citizens Bank Park.
“He’s a popular player because he plays the game hard,” Rodriguez said. “He calls good games and he does the job every day. He’s a fan favorite because he plays hard and does the things he needs to do. He’s being playing great since he got to the big leagues and he’s also doing a tremendous job in the playoffs.”
Pudge shrugged as if this was all common knowledge around big league clubhouses. But often overlooked in the Phillies lineup because of his better known teammates, the fact that Ruiz, 31, is flirting with batting .300 and reaching base at a .400 clip is a bit of a surprise. However, to those familiar with Ruiz’s role with the Phillies, to call him the MVP of the 2010 regular season is not really as outlandish as it sounds.
Sure, there are things that fans grasp onto like Ruiz’s serious demeanor, earnestness and unquenchable desire to win baseball games. He talks to his mother at home in Panama every day often about his hopes for his teammates. Ruiz is like the fans in that he is selfless in his desire for the Phillies to do well.
Who doesn’t like a serious man?
But who can fault Ruiz for taking it so seriously? It’s always big deal to Ruiz. Bullpen coach and catching instructor Mick Billmeyer says if there is one fault Ruiz has in his game it’s that he cares a lot. If a pitcher has a bad outing, Billmeyer says Ruiz looks at it as a reflection on him. Even when pitchers shake him off, Ruiz takes it seriously.
Even though Phillies pitchers have held the opponents to a .250 batting average with Ruiz behind the dish, including a miniscule .198 in 10 games by newcomer Roy Oswalt, it’s those 849 hits in more than 900 innings behind the plate that Ruiz takes to heart.
“He takes it very personally,” Dubee said. “In the three years here he has grown so much as a catcher it’s phenomenal. He’s the leader of our club back there defensively. He takes charge and he’s not afraid to sell his case and explain to pitchers what he’s seeing and they have great trust in him.”
The main reason why the Phillies have a three-game lead over the Braves in the NL East is because the team’s pitching has been so good. With guys like Oswalt, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels heading up the starting rotation, the Phillies’ pitching is as deep as any team in the majors. But it’s not like Ruiz squats behind the plate and waits for the ball to arrive. No, he’s an active participant in the team’s pitching success.
The truth is Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels might not be as good without Ruiz back there.
“He has a lot of intangibles. One is he has really good vision back there. He has a great sense of where hitters are trying to go and what hitters are trying to do. That’s vitally important for a front-line catcher,” Dubee said. “Another thing he does is he puts a lot of energy into whatever he puts down for a pitch.”
Most telling is how much credit Halladay gave Ruiz after his perfect game last May, as well as the fact that in his second start with the Phillies Oswalt put all his faith in his catcher and allowed Chooch to guide him through. In the nine starts since Ruiz has been Oswalt’s wingman, the pitcher has gone 7-0 with a 1.55 ERA.
Hey, Ruiz is a catcher first so the fact that the Phils’ pitchers have a 3.37 ERA with him back there and a losing record when he is not is significant. Plus, his hitting prowess is not just an October thing either. No, Chooch is not quite the new Pudge, but the Phillies would be hard pressed to find a better big-game performer in franchise history...
Or a more valuable player to the team this season.