Healthy Ruiz ready for season to begin

Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

DUNEDIN, Fla. - Carlos Ruiz has looked relaxed all spring and it's been reflected in his play. The Phillies catcher started last year playing catch-up and never hit his groove until late in the season.

Now he has a new contract, a fresh outlook and the same old respect around the clubhouse.

Ruiz began last season with the well-documented 25-game suspension for unsanctioned Adderall use.

Less than a month after returning, he suffered a right hamstring strain and was on the disabled list from May 20 through June 17.

Upon his return, Ruiz was far from at his best.

Yet he was encouraged by the way he finished. In his last 30 games, which included 28 starts, Ruiz batted .273 with three home runs, 23 RBIs and a .784 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage).

For the season, he batted .268 with five home runs, 37 RBIs and a .688 OPS in 92 games.

Ruiz hit .484 with runners in scoring position (15 for 31) from Aug. 8 until the end of the season. That was the highest average with runners in scoring position of any player in MLB over that stretch.

A free agent after last season, Ruiz re-signed with the Phillies on a three-year, $26 million contract.

So without having to worry about a contract or injury, Ruiz has looked like his old self this spring.

"Chooch has had a good spring, quality," manager Ryne Sandberg said following Monday's 6-3 win over the Toronto Blue Jays. "He has thrown the ball a lot better than he did anytime last year, which I think is very good, maybe the last two years."

Sandberg said that having his contract situation settled has meant a great deal.

"I think being stabilized here, the place he wanted to play and he has all that behind him," Sandberg said. "He is a leader on the team, a righthanded bat capable of hitting anywhere in the lineup for me and he has had a good spring and is one of the veteran guys and leaders on this team."

Whether he approaches his career year in 2012 when Ruiz made his first All-Star Game remains to be seen. That year he batted .325 with 16 home runs, 68 RBIs in 372 at-bats and a .935 OPS.

Either way, the 35-year-old Ruiz entered spring training with a determination to be in the best possible shape.

"I worked every day to get myself right and I am really feeling good," he said.

Ruiz is batting .289 this spring with two home runs, seven RBIs and an .831 OPS.

As Sandberg mentioned, not having to worry about his contractual situation has made Ruiz more relaxed, but only to a certain point.

"It's good not to have that worry, but I still have to work 162 games and have to always give 100 percent," Ruiz said.

That last part has never been a problem with Ruiz.

Ruiz's greatest attribute has always been the way he handles a pitching staff. He is among the most respected members of the team.

"He knows how to read the swings of the hitter really well, which to me is the No. 1 thing," said closer Jonathan Papelbon.

Ruiz is 5-foot-10 and 206 pounds and Papelbon feels his short stature is actually a bonus.

"He provides a good low target so being shorter helps," Papelbon said.

Ruiz said a major goal is to enjoy a healthy season. He has been on the disabled list in each of the previous five seasons.

Besides the hamstring strain last year, he has been sidelined with an oblique strain, lower back inflammation, a concussion and plantar fasciitis in his left foot.

Of course, he plays an unforgiving position, but Ruiz understands how important it will be for him to stay in the lineup.

"It's big going into the season feeling good," he said. "I am healthy and hope to continue this way."