THE OTHER night, after Geoff Geary's two-strike pitch was ripped foul down the rightfield line, Carlos Ruiz asked the umpire for another ball, then fired it back hard at the Phillies reliever.
The message was clear: Just moments before, Ruiz had pounded his glove to the ground, emphasizing to the struggling Phillies righthander that he wanted the pitch down in the dirt, where it could not be hit.
"And what did I do?" asked Geary. "I put it in a location where he can hit it."
So Ruiz expressed his disappointment. In doing so, he continued what has been a quick and unexpected ascent into the role of everyday catcher in his first full season.
"It was kind of like a smack," said Geary. "And I took it as, 'Wow, I like that.' He was manhandling me, but doing it in such a way that we didn't have a fight on the mound.
"You can do things with body language just as much as you can with words."
Especially when words are not really an option. A Panama native signed by the Phillies nearly a decade ago, Ruiz, 28, had spent his previous seven
seasons at various minor league levels honing his hitting, showing off that strong arm of his, but leaving the brass a little queasy about how he caught and called a game. Said Geary: "Last year in spring training, he was calling pitches that I would never, ever have thrown."
Some of it had to do with language. Ruiz understands a little English, speaks even less, and needs an interpreter in any type of detailed conversation. It's one big reason Rod Barajas was signed in the offseason, and why Chris Coste continues to languish in the minors. And yet Ruiz is on the last day of May with a .267 average, among the rookie leaders in a slew of offensive categories, including eight doubles and 11 multihit games, a hero in two of the Phillies' more rousing victories in their so-far uneven season.
And most remarkably, doing a solid job behind the plate.
"The hardest part is to get to know what the pitcher has," Ruiz said before last night's 4-3 loss to the Diamondbacks, using teammate Abraham Nunez as an interpreter. "What he likes to do in situations. They might have four different pitches and you have to know what he likes to do and how he's going to pitch each situation. So you can add to it."
Bob Melvin, the Arizona Diamondbacks' manager, survived for a decade in the major leagues because of his defensive capabilities, a backup for seven teams. Not surprisingly, he's a proponent of putting the glove ahead of the bat, and eloquent in detailing what goes into the phrase "handling a staff."
One thing he doesn't feel is necessary: a common language.
"You look at Kenji Johjima over there in Seattle," he said. "I mean, he's had a tough time conversing with them, yet there is a baseball language that doesn't necessarily have to be done in English. There's a look, there's a feel, there's a body language, there's a lot to it."
Another overrated factor, he said, is "framing" the pitch. "At the big-league level, if you start framing and pulling balls back and so forth, you can get the umpires going the wrong way," Melvin said.
"Pitchers look for strong hands. If you can get up under that sinker and hold it there. If you know that on a high breaking ball you want to catch it deeper to be able to get the strike. You want to go out and get the lower pitch and make it look a little bit higher. It's more about catching the ball on a plate. And believe me, pitchers know that. They know which guys are back there taking it seriously, trying to give them their best chance."
Ruiz has improved daily that way, proved by how quickly his pitchers now move through the progression of signs to deliver the pitch. As in the Geary example.
"Some pitchers don't like for you to do that," Ruiz said. "They feel it shows them up. But some other pitchers, that fires them up. That's one thing I am still learning: Who I can challenge."
Melvin has been impressed by what he's seen from Ruiz.
"They have some guys over there who can be difficult," he said. "Jamie Moyer can be difficult to catch. He has a scheme and a series of signs that are very difficult and make it that much harder."
Last night, Moyer, 44, put up zeroes from the second inning through the seventh. Three home runs, two by leadoff man Eric Byrnes on first pitches, provided all the Diamondbacks runs. But the pace was quick, Moyer was hitting his spots, and, well, communication was not an issue.
"Baseball language," Ruiz said, "is the same for all of us." *
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