As numbers plummet, Ruiz searches for answers

CHICAGO – The question was specifically about his strikeout with the bases loaded in the top of the third Wednesday afternoon, and he answered that part of the query with a compliment to White Sox starter Garrett Crochet.

But then Keibert Ruiz continued his answer and began speaking about himself in a broader sense, recognizing that one at-bat wasn’t an isolated incident but rather the latest in a lengthy list of at-bats that have not produced anything close to desired results.

“I know this is a tough situation for me,” the Nationals catcher said. “But I’ve just got to keep my head up, keep working hard and trust that everything’s going to be good.”

It most certainly is not good for Ruiz right now. Not at all. After his 0-for-4, three-strikeout showing Wednesday in a frustrating 2-0 loss, he’s staring at the following offensive slash line: .141/.186/.207.

He doesn’t qualify officially, because of the two weeks he missed dealing with a nasty case of the flu. But among the 270 major leaguers who have taken at least 90 plate appearances so far this season, Ruiz ranks dead-last with a .392 OPS.

For comparison’s sake, Ruiz had a .409 slugging percentage last year. Combined with his not exactly impressive .308 on-base percentage, he still finished with an OPS of .717 that ranked just below the MLB average.

This? Well, this is anything close to average from a player who expects so much more of himself. And it’s only compounded when his team is struggling as a whole to score runs, as evidenced by the back-to-back shutouts the Nats just suffered at the hands of a last-place opponent.

“I think we all get frustrated,” Ruiz said. “Obviously as a player you want to get results, you want to win. But this game is tough. We’ve got to keep the head up and come the next day, make the adjustment that we need to make and keep playing hard.”

What, though, is the necessary adjustment? What exactly does Ruiz need to be doing that he hasn’t been doing to date in 2024?

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I’ve got to sit down, relax, think a little bit better and swing at better pitches. A better plan. And just stay with it. Don’t go out of the plan. Don’t chase for results. Just have a plan, and whatever happens, happens.”

There’s a lot in that answer. And maybe that’s part of the problem. Maybe there are too many thoughts swirling through Ruiz’s head right now, and by the time he digs in at the plate and has to focus on making solid contact with runners in scoring position, it’s too late to figure out the answer.

This much is certain: Ruiz is not hitting the ball with any authority this season, with a hard-hit percentage that ranks in the bottom 10 percent of the league.

And more than anything else, he’s not hitting fastballs. A year ago, he mashed four-seamers to the tune of a .310 batting average and .554 slugging percentage. This year, those numbers have plummeted to .190 and .333.

“He’s just got to get a little more aggressive in the zone,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He’s an aggressive hitter, as we all know. But he’s got to start swinging at the right pitches, and let it go. Don’t feel for it. He has to get up there and start letting it go.”

For a fleeting moment Tuesday, Ruiz seemed to have figured it out. Pinch-hitting for Riley Adams with two on and one out in the eighth inning of a tie game, he got a first-pitch slider over the plate and lined an RBI single to right. It was only his second RBI since March 30.

It turned out to be an isolated moment. Ruiz, starting the nightcap of the doubleheader, went 0-for-4. Then he went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts during Wednesday’s series finale.

“Look, yesterday he had a big hit for us,” Martinez said. “Today, I really thought he was going to come through for us right there. It just didn’t happen.”

Both Ruiz and Martinez insist the illness from last month is not the root cause of his struggles. He’s had more than enough time to recover, and he’s seen more than enough pitches to get his timing back.

But the results still aren’t there. And it only looks worse for a supposed building block of the future, one who signed an eight-year, $50 million extension prior to the 2023 season.

“This is a tough moment,” Ruiz said. “As a player, I have to keep my head up and take it like I’ve got to grow. I’m not going to put my head down and sit down. I’ve got to keep working hard, keep making the adjustments.

“It’s a long season. Whatever happens, happens.”

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