Perhaps the Braves will decide or already have decided that they need to pursue a proven third baseman this winter. If so, that’s understandable.
But Rio Ruiz could at least give them or another team something to think about if he keeps playing for the last three weeks of the season like he has since returning from Triple-A.
Since he was recalled Sept. 1 after the Braves traded Brandon Phillips, Ruiz was 8-for-27 (.296) with a double, a home run, five RBIs and a .766 OPS in seven games before Saturday, including at least one hit in each game until an 0-for-4 against the Marlins on Friday (the Braves had only five hits in that loss).
In addition to solid production at the plate, Ruiz has showed significant improvement in the field since being recalled, making several reaction plays and strong throws that have surprised observers who remember him being little more than serviceable on defense in the past.
“From a year ago, Rio’s a lot better player,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker, who had Ruiz at Triple-A Gwinnett early in the 2016 season when Snitker was manager there, and again during a brief September call-up. “He’s getting better. The more he’s maturing and playing, he’s getting better. It’s just neat to see from a young guy.
“He went back (to Triple-A), and he worked hard. He just kept day-in, day-out getting after it, and you give them more at-bats, and they have a tendency to get better.”
Ruiz, 23, had his first chance to play in the majors on a regular basis in May when third baseman Adonis Garcia tore a finger ligament.
He went 9-for-30 (.300) with two doubles, a home run and .364 OBP and .830 OPS in his first 10 games from May 18 to May 27. Then Ruiz slumped badly, going 5-for-50 with one homer, 16 strikeouts and a .387 OPS in his next 21 games, getting dropped into a platoon with fellow rookie Johan Camargo for 1 1/2 weeks before the Braves optioned him back to Triple-A so he could play every day.
“Whenever you get sent down because you weren’t doing good enough, it’s nobody’s else’s fault but yourself,” Ruiz said. “But I got over it within a couple of hours. I was just excited to be back playing every single day and getting back to the grind. That’s what we play for; we love to play.
“I went down (to Triple-A) and I didn’t hang my head, I went down there and just got to work. Essentially that’s what I did. I got there and I worked with Johnny Mo (Gwinnett hitting coach John Moses) and did my ground balls every single day. I didn’t put too much stress on myself down there. I looked at it as an opportunity to get at-bats and play every single day, then when the opportunity came I thought that I would be ready to go this next time around.”
He’s done that so far, and when Camargo and Garcia both came off the disabled list last week, Snitker made a point of saying Ruiz would continue to get the bulk of the starts at third base. The left-handed-hitting Ruiz was out of the lineup Saturday against Marlins lefty Adam Conley, only the second time in nine games that Ruiz hasn’t started since returning from Gwinnett.
Ruiz has struggled against lefties in the minors, but was 4-for-8 with a double and a homer in his limited chances against them in the majors this season before Saturday.
Regarding his defensive improvement, Ruiz said, “I was never really good at third base up until I guess you could say last year; last year was the best year I had altogether. And then this year I just started making plays that I hadn’t been making. Some of the plays that I made down in Triple-A were a real surprise to myself, but then I’d think to myself, I mean, I worked on it, I worked on those plays in batting practice. Just having fun, too.
“Like, you never really think that these plays are going to happen, but they do happen when you're just actually having fun and making plays in BP, and then a similar ball happens to be hit to you during the game and then you make that play, it’s not surprising to you but to everybody else, it could be.”
For a player who concedes he wasn’t anything close to a defensive standout in the past, Ruiz is still getting used to folks telling him he’s starting to look like legit big-league third baseman with the glove.
“I’ve worked my butt off,” he said. “I’m a third baseman. That’s the way I think about it and that’s the way I go about it is, I’m a third baseman and I’m going to continue to work until -- I mean, I have high aspirations of winning the Gold Glove now. I never really had that up until last year or even the beginning of this year. Now I definitely do.”
Not this year, mind you. But at some point in the future, Ruiz really does aim to win a Gold Glove. It remains to be seen if he can get his defense to that level or if and when someone will give him a chance to be a starting third baseman for a full season in the big leagues. But at 23, he’s making progress, possibly given the Braves something to at least consider when they’re sizing up third base for 2018.
“That’s up to them,” he said. “All I can do is control everything between the lines, and if it’s enough, then it’s enough. If it’s not, then it’s not. But regardless of what happens for the next four weeks or even after that, it’s completely up to them. I’ve just got to play the game and continue to play hard.”
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