That was the first click of the dial.
How Ruiz became the opening day starter at the position, where he returned again last night, began with the Orioles needing someone to replace Sánchez, who was designated for assignment and released late in camp after signing a minor league deal that would have paid $1 million.
They also were searching for ways to have Ruiz and new third baseman Maikel Franco in the same lineup besides using one of them at first base or as the designated hitter.
They also had to trust the process of getting him comfortable on the other side of the infield. The ground balls and popups into shallow right and center. Turning or starting double plays. Being in the correct spot for cutoffs.
On a team that keeps preaching the importance of an upgraded defense behind its young pitching staff, which initially led to the interest in Sánchez, a Gold Glove winner with the White Sox in 2019.
Manager Brandon Hyde and major league coach Fredi González, who didn’t need to sell Ruiz on the idea. Enthusiasm and smiles are never in short supply. Ruiz relayed later how he answered in the affirmative before the last words escaped Hyde’s mouth.
Next came the assignment of a new pupil to third base coach Tony Mansolino, who also is the infield instructor. With the clock ticking until the Orioles broke camp and flew to Boston.
“Having a history with him, they’ve seen him in the past and they were very, very optimistic that he could do this. They were certainly in his corner on making this transition,” Mansolino said.
“For me, as they kind of put it in my lap, it was really just a few days before spring training ended with Yolmer being DFA’d and there being a vacancy and the way the lineup was constructed, trying to fit as many bats as you can in there. And the idea with Rio was putting him at second. It was all Hyde and Fredi that saw this coming, and we only had a few days in spring training to get out there and work him at second base. It was certainly an introduction to him that he probably took really quick.
“To be honest, to his credit, it was easier than I thought it would be for him initially in the practice setting. We’ve still got to play games, there’s still got to be the weird plays that happen at second base. He doesn’t have the fortune of having rollbacks of experiences of making strange plays at second base like he does at third, so that’s all going to have to pop up and he’s going to have to be thrown into the fire to learn those and to gain the rollbacks of experience. But Rio is so calm and he has such good feel for playing the game of baseball, I think we’re all really optimistic that this is going to work.”
Opening day was a smash hit for Ruiz in the field. He ran down two shallow fly balls and made over-the-shoulder catches and also robbed Alex Verdugo with a diving stop and throw.
Other tests are coming to Ruiz, who hit the Orioles’ first homer last night with a two-run shot in the ninth inning. His final score won’t be based on deep popups and ground balls to his left.
“Where it’s really going to show up is on the double plays, the feeds and the turns, on both ends of the double play. This is where we’re going to find out, with anybody who gets thrown into second base,” said Mansolino, who could replicate only so much on the back fields at the Ed Smith Stadium complex.
“I think in today’s modern game of shifting, Rio’s played a ton of shortstop in the big leagues at this point. If you start thinking about the amount of times that he’s lined up at straightaway shortstop in shifts, he’s spent plenty of time at shortstop. The modern third baseman is a little bit different than the traditional third baseman in terms of their capabilities and their experiences, where they line up on the dirt. So I think that’s really going to help handling the middle part of the field.
“It’s really going to come down to the big double plays and things like that, and only time will tell. But I think Rio’s mind is so calm, he’s got such a good feel for the game. Like you saw in Boston on those popups. Those are brutal plays and if you had asked me before all this what I would be concerned about the most, I would have said just the experience of turning the double play and feeding the double play, and also the popups. That’s a strange, strange play and he certainly passed the test already on one of those.”
Ruiz’s confidence wouldn’t crumble with a few misplays, but it received a boost with three web gems on opening day.
“They’re huge building blocks,” Mansolino said. “Every play he makes that’s abnormal is going to be a huge building block for him. Every double play that he turns is going to be a big building block. And he’s not going to be a full-time second baseman. You’re going to see him at third base. Just depends on the personnel available and however Hyder constructs the lineup.
“So he’s going to bounce around, which is going to be good for our team, and I’ll tell you, it’s really going to be good for Rio’s career, too. The ability to go out there and play second base, and we’ve seen he can play first, as well. We know he can play third. This is going to be a really, really positive thing for him moving forward and hopefully for the Orioles, as well.”
Mansolino evaluated Ruiz in camp with consideration given to certain elements that can challenge even the best defenders. He wasn’t searching for excuses, but he also wasn’t going to pretend that every field mimicked a major league environment.
Ask infielders about the dirt. Ask outfielders about the high sky and swirling winds.
Ask them about the grind of the daily workouts and exhibitions.
“You do need to play well to a certain degree in spring training, but I think being an infielder myself, I have a very good understanding of how hard the dirt is on those fields. With the wind and the heat, they’re really hard fields,” said Mansolino, who was hired as José Flores’ replacement on the coaching staff.
“I understand how much work guys are putting in on the back fields and when they do that there tends to be some fatigue when the game sets in, which is a very real thing. Baseball is one of those things, too, where you have to be 100 percent engaged on every pitch, otherwise it will undress you really quick on any given play.”
Ruiz has been out of the lineup for only one game, when the Yankees opened their series by starting left-hander Jordan Montgomery. Right-hander Jameson Taillon is on the mound tonight, which probably keeps Ruiz at second base unless Hyde uses him as the DH.
The home opener on Thursday could unfold with Ruiz on the bench against Red Sox lefty Eduardo Rodriguez, but more opportunities are coming to him. And one potential replacement, Rougned Odor, is removed as a threat after yesterday’s trade to the Yankees. The Orioles had interest and were doing background work on him.