Last Call for Carlos Ruiz
There is perhaps no moment that better encapsulates what catcher Carlos Ruiz has meant to this Phillies team than the final out in Game 1 of the 2010 NLDS. Roy Halladay was brilliant that night, untouchable in fact.
With 8 2/3rds innings of no-hit ball in the books, Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips tapped a weak grounder in front of the plate, dropping his bat perfectly in the void between Carlos Ruiz and the final out. The ball spun absurdly along the barrel of the bat, daring the catcher to make a mistake.
One misstep, one errant stab at the ball, even a poorly timed sneeze, and Phillips was safe for sure. This would have been merely a well-pitched game, a playoff victory, a silver lining with a touch of grey, but nothing of the history-making variety.
Without pomp or panic, Carlos Ruiz bound forward, deftly plucked the ball from limbo, dropped to his knees and delivered the final out to Ryan Howard at first base. It was only the second no-hitter in the annals of postseason play.
Between the Phillies and history that night crouched a soft-spoken catcher, the cool and collected linchpin in a locker room of superstars, frequently unheralded but always indispensable. The final out of Halladay’s no-hitter typifies the catcher’s career in Philly. Halladay’s name is in the books, but it could not have happened without Carlos Ruiz. Not just the no-hitter, but that whole improbable era when the Phillies were the best team in baseball.
If 2010 feels like a long time ago, then 2008 is like some kind of mid-autumn fever dream, too vivid to distinguish from real life. Did it really even happen? Well, we have a flag to show for it, but we have something else. We have Carlos Ruiz. Only two men remain from the Broad Street parade, and only one still enjoys the adoring gaze of the fans.
At 37, Ruiz is entering the final year of his contract and, more than likely, his career. The Phillies’ youth movement is officially underway and Ruiz is coming off a season in which he made his fewest starts, at 86, since converting from the infield in 2006.
With only 320 plate appearances and a .222/.290/.285 slash line last year, Ruiz is entering spring training in an unfamiliar position. Optimistically speaking, he is competing for a starting job with 27-year-old Cameron Rupp. But Rupp dominated playing time after last year’s All-Star Break, clubbing nine homers in just 66 plate appearances during August. Rupp’s small but compelling sample and Ruiz’s age make the former a lock and the latter a longshot to start.
Bottom line, this will be the last season you’ll have to explain to your out-of-town friends that the fans aren’t booing, they’re saying “Chooooooch!”
Still, there are 162 games left before we put a final stamp on Chooch’s legacy, which it bears noting includes being on the receiving end of four no-hitters. In MLB history, only Jason Varitek has called and caught as many.
Among other things, this distinction should tell us that we haven’t just benefited from Chooch’s physical abilities all these years but from his acumen as well. There is a treasure trove of knowledge in this man’s head and a small fortune of young, untapped pitching and catching talent to benefit from it.
If you want to hear elite pitchers like Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee gush, just ask them about Ruiz. Ask about his ability to size up hitters, call for pitches, and execute a game plan. Of his no-no against Cincy, the ever-humble Halladay informed reporters that he pretty much just did exactly what he was told, shaking off Carlos Ruiz only once the entire game.
It is tantalizing to imagine what a guy like that could impart to the likes of Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Mark Appel, Jake Thompson, and Vincent Velasquez as each cultivates his major league talents. Add to that what Chooch might yet teach—by action, example, and insight—to the still-evolving Rupp and a pair of prospective catching studs in Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp.
The Carlos Ruiz story may be mostly in the books, and his career slash line of .266/.351/.396 probably won’t change dramatically this season. He also won’t do anything to diminish his permanent standing in Phillies lore. A certain iconic embrace with Brad Lidge at the pitcher’s mound guarantees his immortality in red pinstripes.
But he does have an opportunity this season. With 10 years in the same uniform and an 11th on the horizon, Ruiz has been here for the full bell curve, from mediocrity to excellence and back again. There is knowledge to be had from all of it. This year, expect guys like Rupp, Alfaro, and Knapp to sidle up to Ruiz at every opportunity, to watch as he works, to listen as he speaks, to ask questions when they can. Expect this group of still-evolving hurlers to put their trust in his hands like Halladay, Hamels, and Lee did.
Ruiz has already forged an indelible reputation in Philly for the things we love most: inscrutable work ethic; fierce competitive drive; and a healthy disinclination to say anything stupid to the media. He will depart his career a Phillie hero (Adderall-related scandals be damned).
Ruiz has said that his goal is ultimately the same this year as it has been in years past: to play every day. That probably won’t happen. But before he leaves us, Carlos Ruiz could be the last and best link between that which once made the Phillies great and that which could make them great again.