MIAMI – Wednesday night was a glimpse into the Nationals’ potentially bright future.
After dropping the first two games of the series and first five games of the season against the Marlins, the Nats’ rough week in Miami looked like it was going to end in the worst way.
The offense couldn’t capitalize on a bases-loaded opportunity in the eighth inning and Tanner Rainey blew his second save of the season in the ninth.
No worries, because Keibert Ruiz – dubbed “the star of the game” by manager Davey Martinez afterwards – came to the rescue with a game-winning RBI double in the top of the 10th.
That capped off a 3-for-3 night with two doubles, an RBI and two walks as Ruiz reached base in all five plate appearances for the first time in his career. Even more impressive was the fact that the switch-hitter was able to produce that incredible night from both sides of the plate.
“It feels good,” Ruiz said of his ability to have success hitting right and left-handed. “I just gotta keep doing my job, keep working hard, keep learning and, like I said, just waiting for my pitch and don't try to do too much.”
Ruiz is slashing .299/.351/.414 with a .765 OPS, seven doubles, one home run, nine RBIs and five walks while batting left-handed. He’s only slashing .217/.321/.261 with a .582 OPS, one double, two RBIs and four walks while batting right-handed.
But Martinez sees the younger catcher improving from both sides of the plate.
“It's huge, huge,” Martinez said. “So what they've been working on, he's actually now, you're seeing he's starting to get more walks. He's starting to stay on top of the baseball, he's hitting the ball all over the field, which is great. But he's catching, his game calling, his blocking, everything's gotten so much better. I'm so happy for him that he had a game like that (Wednesday). And hopefully, he'll continue to do that because it gets him going a little bit. But he was awesome.”
Lost in the hectic finish to yesterday’s extra-inning win was Josiah Gray’s solid start to begin the game. He tossed six innings of three-run ball on six hits and seven strikeouts for his second quality start of the season.
“He's been good this year,” Ruiz said of his batterymate. “I love when he pitches. He likes to compete. I like to compete, too. We want to try to do the best to help the team win.”
They’re doing that by putting in all of the work behind the scenes. And their manager has taken notice.
“It's been awesome. I mean, it really has,” Martinez said of Ruiz’s game planning. “I mean, he's taking responsibility about trying to get this pitching staff online. Trying to do everything to help them during the game. You saw him (Wednesday) with Josiah. There's a lot of high-leverage situations. And he called him down so that he made pitches when he had to.
“And Keibert was good. I mean, the game calling was great. (Victor) Arano comes in, he spikes a couple of balls and (Ruiz) made unbelievable blocks. And then (Tanner) Rainey as well. So like I said he's getting better every day. I love it.”
“We're here to help the team win,” Ruiz said of Gray and himself. “Like I said before, I will do whatever to help the team and help my pitchers, too. In those type of situations, we got to get up.”
They’re also here because of last summer’s sell-off at the trade deadline. Gray and Ruiz highlighted the four-player package the Nationals got in return for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner. They went from growing in the Dodgers system to now growing on the Nationals’ major league roster.
“Yeah, I think it's awesome seeing the growth with him at the plate, him behind the plate,” Gray said after Ruiz’s impressive night. “Obviously, we're both young guys. And obviously, when someone's talking about one, they're probably talking about the other. To see him have continued success is awesome. And we feed off that. And it's a lot of fun to see him. I think that growth is going to be tremendous for us this season as we continue to go on.”
The one side of Ruiz that fans might not see too often is his highly competitive one. Usually reserved in the clubhouse and around the media, the 23-year-old gets amped up in his own way during a game.
“I would say it's pretty calm,” Gray said of Ruiz’s competitive and intense side. “But also for us, I guess the way he relays it is he just pounds his glove a few times and tells us we got to make our pitches. So that little edge and that little, I guess, boost of energy goes a long way. Being a more so introverted guy that kind of has the inside fire, I see that with him, as well. So it's cool to see. And when he's really intent on wanting you to make a pitch, he shows it to you.”
“He's reserved around you guys,” Martinez told the media last night. “During the game, he's intense. And he's very competitive.”
We’ll see that competitive spirit and growth with Gray in Washington for years to come.