ATLANTA - Every day, 4 hours before game time, Carlos Ruiz reports to the batting cage. Mick Billmeyer fires up the pitching machine and sets it to throw wicked, shin-high curveballs.
Ruiz settles in . . . and practices catching them.
Billmeyer, the Phillies' catching instructor, says the goal is for Ruiz, a 28-year-old rookie, to keep his wrist under the low pitch so as to frame pitchers' sinking curves - such as Tom Gordon's and Brett Myers' - so umpires are more likely to call them strikes. It is another step in Ruiz's ascension to starting catcher.
Yes, starting catcher. Ruiz's start last night gave him 15 in the Phillies' first 25 games.
"Right now, the way he's playing, I feel I have to play him more," manager Charlie Manuel said.
"I'm enjoying the opportunity to play," Ruiz said.
Ruiz has started 50 percent more often than Rod Barajas, the veteran whom the Phillies signed in December to a $2.5 million contract, with a $500,000 buyout next season - unless they bring him back for $5 million. Barajas' deal this season gives him $50,000 once he reaches 100 starts and $50,000 more for every 10 starts thereafter to 140.
Clearly, Barajas and the Phillies expected him to start more than Ruiz. But Barajas is on pace for about 65 starts.
These days, Barajas' only guaranteed start is when Adam Eaton starts, because, Manuel said, Barajas and Eaton played together with Texas last season.
Eaton is 2-2 with a team-worst 7.71 earned run average.
Ruiz appears to be Jon Lieber's personal catcher; as of last night, Lieber hasn't started with Barajas. Ruiz also has caught all of Jamie Moyer's five starts and each of Freddy Garcia's. He starts tomorrow.
Ruiz also entered last night hitting .302 with a homer, six doubles, 10 RBI and 10 runs scored, compared with Barajas' .214, one homer, one double, three RBI and two runs scored.
There are issues with Ruiz. His footwork is good and he is a splendid athlete, but he has a habit of setting up too wide. Occasionally, his rear end will drop too close to the ground. Both issues affect his mobility, Billmeyer said, and his ability to receive the ball with proper technique.
So why does Ruiz - a Triple A All-Star last year - need extra tutoring at the catcher position? Because he never caught until he was signed at 19 and because he spent much of his time in the minors injured.
Ruiz says his legs are stronger and his right shoulder has never been better thanks to exercise programs.
"He's a young catcher, developmentwise," Billmeyer said. "Being hurt set back his development."
He's developing on the job. He threw out more than 30 percent of basestealers the last 3 years in the minors and he entered last night 5-for-18. The chief worry with Ruiz was whether he could handle the Phillies' more headstrong and/or veteran pitchers.
But pitchers such as Moyer, Garcia and Lieber have definite game plans and can guide the catcher.
"I think that's helped him," Manuel said.
However, there are times when they need guidance, too.
"He's doing that," Billmeyer said. "You can see it in his face."
There is determination there, too.
The Phillies always have been worried about Ruiz's durability, even if he isn't injured. He's listed at 5-10, which clearly is a 3-inch fib; that means his 202 pounds are probably a tad heavy, too. No worries, Ruiz said.
"Man, I feel I can catch 120 games," he said - which he essentially did last season between Triple A and the majors. "You know what I think? In September, and maybe October, I'd like to see."
Wes Helms had a team-high four errors and was 0-for-4 against Tim Hudson. He fully understood why Abraham Nunez started at third base last night for the third straight day.
"Charlie [Manuel] told me at early batting practice," Helms said. "I don't blame him. I'd do the same thing."
Helms was hitting .284 entering the game but was also 5-for-32 with runners in scoring position. But the offensive consideration seemed secondary for Manuel.
"For his defense" is why Nunez started, Manuel said.
With Jon Lieber, the Phillies' hottest pitcher, starting against Hudson, baseball's hottest pitcher, defense would be at a premium.
Manuel told Helms he would start tonight against lefty Mark Redman.
Charlie Manuel is pleased with Pat Burrell's consistent approach of driving the ball to rightfield despite Burrell losing some power.
Burrell is focusing on not pulling pitches. He had one homer and nine RBI entering last night, but two sharply hit groundballs to second base that were fielded and two drives to deep right-centerfield that were caught could have meant as many as six or seven more RBI.
With Burrell hitting at a .304 clip entering the game, Manuel said, "The power will get there. He's going to get 30 to 40 real good flyballs. He's got to have patience with his approach. In the long run, it'll pay off." *