Rio Ruiz had something to say this afternoon before hopping on his media Zoom call.
He knows about the club’s pending move for free agent third baseman Maikel Franco and how it impacts him. He knows that missing more than a week with an illness and being 1-for-12 before today’s game against the Pirates are sabotaging his attempts to make the club and keep his position.
Ruiz isn’t wearing blinders.
He wore the look today of a much better version of himself.
Ruiz made a diving stop and throw to rob Jared Oliva in the second inning and allow Matt Harvey to retire the side in order after a pair of strikeouts. He doubled twice, on a shallow fly ball that two Pirates lost in the sun and a one-hopper over the fence, in two at-bats.
“I’ve just got to worry about the things I can control,” Ruiz said before the conclusion of a 12-3 win over the Pirates at Ed Smith Stadium. “I don’t make decisions around here. Nobody in the clubhouse really does. As long as you play your game and worry about yourself, I think everything will be fine.”
Ruiz didn’t go into specifics regarding his illness, but offered a few hints if reading between the lines. He apparently showed COVID-19 symptoms, but didn’t test positive.
“I had all the stuff going on, symptoms. Luckily we dodged a bullet there and I got back a week later,” he said.
“I was definitely worried about (falling behind), especially being out for the whole week that I was. I didn’t know how long that we were going to be out. But luckily we kind of did everything that we needed to do and all the tests we needed to take and I was able to get back today.”
Ruiz has a few more weeks to turn around his spring, and perhaps the minds of some people in the organization.
“It’s spring training as normal,” he said. “Obviously, today was a good feeling to get back out there, especially with everybody, and start off with the sun double that I did. That definitely helped. But just approach it as normal. Work every day, get my work in every day, get my swings in, take my ground balls. Nothing really changes. Just get ready for the season.”
Ruiz knows the importance of showing the team that there’s more to him than his body of work since coming to the organization at the 2018 Winter Meetings. He’s hit .229/.299/.393 in 617 plate appearances. There are spurts of power and production that can’t be sustained.
“I don’t think anybody’s really content with what they’ve shown or what they’ve done,” he said. “I think everybody’s always trying to do more and I’m not different.”
What makes Ruiz different is the pending arrival of a player who makes his living at the same position.
“I mean, nothing’s set in stone right now,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “Rio, this is his first day back. He’s been out with, feeling under the weather for the last handful of days and he’s going to DH tomorrow. I’m going to try to catch him up at-bats as much as I possibly can the next two weeks. He’s going to get a couple more at-bats tomorrow, could possibly play the third day, just to get him some more at-bats.
“I liked the way he played. Made a really great play defensively, a diving play to his left, and was competitive at the plate going left-on-left, hit a ground-rule double. It was a nice first day back for him.”
Harvey and Franco were teammates last summer with the Royals and will be reunited in Sarasota.
“Obviously, playing against him when he was with the Phillies and then playing with him last year, the guy’s got some serious pop and can do some damage for sure,” Harvey said. “Having him at third, whoever it is - obviously I’m not in charge of those things - he definitely has an unbelievable arm and plays a good third base. He can swing it. And from the short season last year that I spent time with him, he’s a great teammate. Whatever obviously is decided, it will be good to have some extra bats always.”
Hyde watched his team score eight runs in the seventh inning and pound out 15 hits. Ruiz fought his way into the highlights.
“I thought we had good at-bats all day long, up and down the order,” Hyde said.
Today marked a breakout for the Orioles, who homered for the first time since March 5. Austin Hays and Freddy Galvis went back-to-back in the second inning against Pirates left-hander Tyler Anderson and Jahmai Jones launched a three-run shot in the seventh.
Harvey’s start threatened to implode, but he completed four innings and allowed two runs and five hits with no walks and four strikeouts. Ke’Bryan Hayes homered in the first, with the Pirates in attack mode hunting the first pitch, and he tied the game in the fourth with an RBI single.
“I thought Matt threw the ball great,” Hyde said. “Fastball 94-95 (mph), a lot of 95s, I think up to 96. Fastball had a ton of life to it. Got beat on a couple breaking balls, a couple sliders. Hayes got him twice, one for the homer and one for the base hit to right on a breaking ball. Just didn’t locate a couple breaking balls in bad spots, but the fastball had life, the two-seamer was getting some ugly swings on. Was really diving down and in to right-handers. I thought that was a really good outing.”
Adam Frazier tripled off Shawn Armstrong with one out in the fifth and was stranded on two ground balls. Armstrong struck out Will Craig to begin the inning.
Santander entered the game with two hits this spring and matched that total today by the fifth.
Left-hander Fernando Abad preserved the lead in the sixth after replacing Armstrong with a runner on third base and one out. Pat Valaika fielded Erik González’s grounder and threw home for the out and Troy Stokes struck out looking.
Gunnar Henderson had a two-run single in the seventh off Edgar Santana and Jones, who was 2-for-17 this spring, produced his three-run homer for an 8-2 lead.
“I thought we did a lot of good things offensively and I’m even more pleased with our defense,” Hyde said. “I thought we played very, very well defensively for the second game in row, something we haven’t been doing so far this spring.”
Keegan Akin allowed one run and struck out five batters, with no walks, in three innings. Akins has 11 strikeouts this spring in 6 2/3 innings and remains at five walks after exhibiting more precision today with his pitches.
“I just think he’s a quick-tempo pitcher that a lot of times he’s in attack mode,” Hyde said. “I think the first two outings, it didn’t look like he had great feel for his pitches at that point. That’s not abnormal for pitchers to kind of find it throughout spring training and today it looked like he found it.
“The changeup looked good, he threw some good sliders, especially in that last inning, and the fastball had life and he was commanding it fairly well. For his third outing I thought he made some big strides.”