The immediate outlook for Braves third baseman Rio Ruiz has changed dramatically since 3-1/2 weeks ago, when he was struggling with a new swing and seemed on a course to start a third season at Triple-A Gwinnett.
Ruiz’s production has improved sharply since that first week, fortuitous for him and the Braves since would-be starting third baseman Johan Camargo (strained oblique/back) is headed to the disabled list to begin the season.
Barring a late trade or waiver claim, Ruiz is expected to be the Braves’ opening-day third baseman and likely will get most of the playing time at the position while Camargo’s out.
The Braves think Camargo should be ready the first day he’s eligible to come off the DL April 5, though that’s an off day and his earliest game would be an April 6 series opener at Colorado.
“Rio has worked his ass off the last couple of years. He’s getting better,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “You never know, situations happen, door gets opened and a guy doesn’t give it back. You never know.”
After starting 1-for-12 with eight strikeouts in his first five games, Ruiz was 13-for-46 (.282) with four doubles, two homers, 10 RBIs and nine strikeouts in his past 18 games before Thursday. He came to camp confident after working with a renowned swing coach near his home in Los Angeles over the winter, but in the first week of camp the adjustments designed to give him more loft and help him hit more home runs didn’t seem to be taking.
“In the first couple of weeks it was just trying to find something that was going to actually work,” said Ruiz, 24. “I didn’t panic. Probably a lot of other people panicked, but I knew I was in a good spot. I was seeing the ball well, it was just a new swing, new everything. That’s everybody else’s job to panic and my job to just relax and try to put the bat on the ball.”
Beginning with doubles in consecutive games March 1-2, Ruiz’s production and the quality of his at-bats has improved steadily. The left-handed hitter had a double and a home run Saturday against the Phillies and a RBI double Wednesday against Tigers lefty Francisco Liriano.
“He started not real good, but it’s how you finish,” Snitker said. “He’s made adjustments, and I know he and Seitz (hitting coach Kevin Seitzer) have been working in the cage and the whole thing, and he’s swinging the bat pretty good right now. He walked up there yesterday and hit a breaking ball nobody could see off the lefty (Liriano). They brought the lefty in over in (Clearwater against) Philly, and he hit the homer.”
An injury to his friend Camargo created an opportunity for Ruiz, though that’s not the way he wanted to get playing time.
“I want (Camargo) on the team,” said Ruiz, who has also played some first base this spring. “I want him healthy. I want him playing all 162 games because he’s that good a player, he helps this team win every single time he’s on the field. With that being said, we’ve got to try to go out and win games and hopefully I’ll contribute to that.”