Smiling Ruiz becomes serious catcher
Former second baseman's defensive skills vastly improving
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The ball hugged the third-base line as it bounded toward left field. This wasn't a problem for Carlos Ruiz, who scooped it up on the second bounce, threw across his body and nabbed the phantom runner at first base.A modest fist-pump followed, then an approving nod from Pedro Feliz, who looked as if he learned something. Such was a recent morning at Bright House Field for Ruiz, the second baseman-turned-catcher, who enjoys a round of infield practice as much as the next guy. Perhaps more. "I can pick it," Ruiz said, smiling. "I like to do that. I used to play infield, and that makes me feel good. It helps keep my legs strong." Ruiz went so far as to offer to switch positions occasionally with Feliz, in the event that manager Charlie Manuel would allow it. Feliz is just as fine with the status quo. "I'll stay here," said Feliz, who caught for one-third of an inning for the Giants last season. Fielding grounders temporarily spares Ruiz from thinking about catching during down time. For the 29-year-old, feeling comfortable has been the key to seeing his boisterous personality emerge this spring. Ruiz has been caught smiling a lot, whether he's making a joke or is the butt of one. His distinct pronunciations of words are a constant source of amusement for teammates -- and it has nothing to do with the language barrier. "His English is much better than people think," said Chris Coste, who speaks fluent Spanish. "He's as big a jokester and fun-loving guy as there is -- and often in English. That's why he's one of the most loved guys on the team." Although a good example of Ruiz's wit isn't necessarily printable -- you'll have to take Coste's word for it -- it speaks of his ability to evolve from a shy rookie who could barely order a pizza to a dependable catcher expected to take a leap forward at the plate this season. Despite his prowess at third base, Ruiz's defensive skills have already been lauded. Even though he's thrown out only 25 percent of runners on base, his strong throwing arm has kept base stealers close at first, for fear of a snap pickoff move. Ruiz's game-calling has also improved. "It's all confidence," said pitcher Jamie Moyer. "You sense that he feels a part of this group, and that's important in the role he plays. There were a lot of times last year when I said, 'You call the game.'"
Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.