Ruiz learning how to take charge in second year behind plate

SAN FRANCISCO – As well as he pitched Monday night to earn his first major league win, Jake Irvin had a moment when it looked like things might fall apart on him.

Irvin opened the top of the fourth by allowing a leadoff single to the Giants’ Thairo Estrada. He then walked Joc Pederson. On the MASN broadcast, analyst Kevin Frandsen speculated Nationals pitching coach Jim Hickey was about to make a mound visit to settle the young right-hander down.

That didn’t happen, but when Irvin threw a curveball outside to J.D. Davis to fall behind in the count 1-0, the mound visit happened. It came not from Hickey or anyone else in the Nats dugout. It came from Keibert Ruiz, who trotted out from his position behind the plate to chat with Irvin, joined by first baseman Dominic Smith and third baseman Jeimer Candelario.

In the dugout, Davey Martinez was thrilled.

“His mound visit was spot-on,” the manager said. “He went out there, talked to Jake, slowed him down a little bit. That’s part of maturity. That’s part of seeing something in Jake that he wanted to confront him with. And it was a perfect moment.”

Irvin proceeded to get Davis to ground into a double play, avoiding any damage in the inning, and ultimately pitched into the seventh inning to earn the win in his second career start. He did that with poise and performance uncommon for a pitcher with so little experience. But he also did it with help from his catcher, who in his second full big league season has learned how and when to take charge with the Nationals pitching staff.

“That’s something last year we talked a lot about: He has to take control,” Martinez said. “He needs to see these things. I can’t continue to tell him: ‘You need to do this, you need to do that.’ I want him to learn and do it himself, and he’s been really good.”

Ruiz talked this spring about his desire to improve not only his game-calling skills, but the manner in which he worked with pitchers. A soft-spoken individual by nature, the 24-year-old doesn’t light up the room when he enters. But he understands as a catcher, especially one the organization has now committed to for eight years and $50 million, he needs to be more aggressive when it comes to taking control of the pitching staff.

“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “I want to gain their confidence, and I want them to trust in me, as well. We’re a family here, so I want them to get confident with having me around and just be comfortable. At the end of the day, we’re all a team, and I want us to go out there and feel like a family.”

Deep down, Ruiz already knew these things a year ago. But it’s not easy for a catcher in his first full season to take charge like that, especially when most of the Nationals rotation was significantly older or more experienced than him.

“I think what happened last year is, he came here, he didn’t know anybody,” said Henry Blanco, the Nats’ catching coordinator. “He was trying to fit in a little bit. I think now he knows he’s going to be here for a lot of years, so he decides to be one of those guys who helps out his teammates, does some stuff quietly. He’s not a talker. But I think he’s getting more comfortable now.”

Blanco, who caught 16 seasons for 11 different major league clubs, works constantly with Ruiz and backup catcher Riley Adams. He’s in the dugout during games and talks to them between innings about upcoming matchups, game trends and anything else he notices with his own experienced eye.

A Venezuelan native like Ruiz, Blanco sees some similarities in his young protégé. He also sees a better hitter than he was, but one who never wants to shortchange his defensive responsibilities.

“I think he’s getting more comfortable now with his position,” Blanco said. “He knows he’s going to play every day. He wants to become a leader of this team. I think he’s going on the right track. He knows what it takes to be a leader, to be there for those guys every day. We like what we see in him. I think he’s going to be a very good leader for this team.”

And when all those past conversations and growing experiences come together to create a moment like the one that prompted Ruiz to decide on his own to call time and trot to the mound to settle down Irvin on Monday night, you can almost see the coaching staff beaming with pride from the dugout. Their young catcher is coming into his own, just as they’ve hoped he would.

“I’m always asking him: ‘Why would you do this? Why would you do that?’ And he’s had the right answers,” Martinez said. “It’s beautiful. It’s really good to see him really engaged and understand what it takes to be a catcher and control our pitchers the way he’s doing it.”

Game 38 lineups: Nats vs. Mets
Nats blast Giants, give Gray plenty of support in ...

By accepting you will be accessing a service provided by a third-party external to