Keibert Ruiz joined the Nationals at the trade deadline as a prospect with a reputation for being undeniably toolsy. His offense took a while to get going, but both his bat and his defense were on full display Saturday night in a 7-6 loss to the Reds.
Ruiz threw out two runners on the bases, one of which took the Reds out of a bigger inning, and his one-out solo homer in the seventh snapped a 5-all standoff. It was the second night in a row that Ruiz went deep, and the rookie backstop is now hitting .284 after a 1-for-4 night. He barely missed giving the Nats a lead in the top of the ninth, his drive down the right field line off a 95 mph Mychal Givens fastball just pushing wide of the foul pole.
Though he came to the Nats with the reputation of a guy whose defense had to catch up to his offense, Ruiz continues to make strides with his blocking, throwing and game management. The time he’s spending working with catching instructor Henry Blanco is paying tangible dividends.
In the fourth, after Kyle Farmer was hit by a pitch to lead off the frame, Ruiz cut him down trying to advance on a ball in the dirt. An inning later, Ruiz nabbed Delino DeShields at third on the front end of an attempted double steal, limiting the Reds to a two-run rally in what could have been a bigger inning.
“He’s doing a lot better (defensively),” manager Davey Martinez said of Ruiz in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “Like I said, he’s out there working with (coach Henry Blanco) diligently to get better. We want him to work every day so that when he comes to spring training next year, he has a great idea of what he needs to do and he’s ready to go next year. He’s working hard. He made some really good blocks and throws to the bases today. He’s moving a lot better back there, he’s staying down on balls a little bit better.”
With the Nationals already looking to next year, small victories - even the kind that don’t show up in the win-loss column - are significant. Starter Erick Fedde has been impressed with Ruiz’s development in his time with the Nats.
“I thought Keibert did a hell of a job making some outs on the base paths for me, and I think that was really helpful,” Fedde said. “I thought he played unbelievable today.”
Fedde appreciated Ruiz having his back and trying to pick him up when he was struggling with his location.
“When you feel like you don’t have your best stuff and you’re looking for any way to get somebody out, when somebody can help you out that way, ... it’s the best feeling. ... It’s fun to watch him really be successful lately.”
Martinez said that defensive players can get on a roll, just like the guys swinging the bats.
“When you see one good defensive player, the next guy wants to make another good defensive play,” Martinez said. “It’s encouraging to see these guys, the way they’re going out and playing.”
Nick Castellanos homered off Patrick Murphy, the sixth Nationals pitcher, with one out in the ninth for the walk-off victory.
Coming off a 12-pitch eighth and with his options limited, manager Davey Martinez hoped to get another inning out of Murphy, but the ploy didn’t work. Castellanos swung and missed at an 85 mph curveball, but Murphy’s 97 mph four-seamer caught a little too much of the plate.
“He took a big hack at that curveball, looked like he was right on it and just missed it, so after that I wanted to be aggressive,” Murphy said. “Go hard in. We were on the same page (with Ruiz). He wanted to go up, I wanted to go in. Either way, we were both thinking in. Got it there, just didn’t get it all the way on the black. It was inner third - I probably wanted to go a little more in. He put a good swing on it and beat me.”
Martinez was pretty blunt about Murphy’s pitch selection to Castellanos on the game-winner.
“We were short in the bullpen today because of yesterday,” the manager said. “Murphy came in and threw well. Went back out there and got a big out the first out and then threw a fastball right down the middle.”
The Nats’ desire to push Fedde deeper into games to spare a bedraggled bullpen left the right-hander little room for error. Fedde couldn’t get through the fifth inning, didn’t pitch long enough to qualify for a victory and relinquished a two-run advantage in his final frame, allowing the Reds to forge a 5-5 tie.
“I liked my stuff early in the game,” Fedde said. “I thought once I got to the fourth and fifth, I just really lost command of a lot of my pitches. Just found myself struggling more to find the zone. ... I was just trying to make my pitches and wasn’t having a lot of success.”
With his fastball command spotty, Fedde relied more heavily on the curveball that has become one of his go-to weapons in recent weeks. Only it seemed like the Reds were aware of his issues with the fastball and were sitting on his bender.
“I definitely think the third time through the lineup today, it looked like the hitters were a little more on top of it,” he said. “Not flinching as much at it. I know it’s becoming part of the rapport, something that I need to be more effective with the other pitches, maybe a little higher percentage of those going forward.”
Fedde was tagged for five runs on seven hits, with three walks and a strikeout, his ERA increasing to 5.26 in what could be his penultimate start of 2021.
That lead held until the second, when the Reds went ahead 2-1. Tyler Stephenson led off with a single to right and went to third on Farmer’s double to left. Both runners scored on Eugenio Suárez’s double.
The Nationals almost ran themselves out of a big inning in the third - when Soto was thrown out at third by catcher Tucker Barnhart on a ball in the dirt for the second out - but they took advantage of Gutierrez’s wildness.
Alcides Escobar led off with a single and Soto walked before Bell’s RBI single tied the game. After García fanned swinging and Soto was thrown out at third, Ruiz walked and both runners moved up on a passed ball. Jordy Mercer walked to load the bases and Tony Santillan relieved. Andrew Stevenson greeted him with a two-run single to center for a 4-2 edge.
Fedde was the victim of some shoddy defense as the Reds closed within 4-3 in the home third. Stevenson misjudged Jonathan India’s fly ball to left, which bounced over the wall for an automatic double, India went to third on a groundout and scored on Castellanos’ sacrifice fly to deep center.
But Lane Thomas’ solo shot in the fourth on Santillan’s first pitch restored the Nats’ two-run cushion.
Fedde’s night ended after a 33-pitch fifth in which he coughed up a 5-3 lead and took three straight hitters to 3-2 counts, upping his pitch count. The Reds loaded the bases with none out on two singles and a walk, and a sac fly by Max Schrock made it 5-4. The Nats caught a break when Ruiz threw out DeShields trying to swipe third on the front end of a double steal, but Castellanos blooped a run-scoring single into right in front of Soto to knot the score. After walking Stephenson, Fedde was pulled in favor of Mason Thompson, who fanned Farmer swinging to escape further damage.
Ruiz homered off a 1-1 fastball from Jeff Hoffman with one out in the seventh, sending the ball over the wall in right-center. But the Reds tied the game in the bottom half when Castellanos walked, went to second on a grounder and scored on a Farmer double off Andres Machado.