BRADENTON, Fla. - Beyond the left-center field wall here at McKechnie Field, more than 375 feet away from home plate, sits a lovely set of bleachers shielded from the afternoon sun by three pine-green painted awnings. It would seem an excellent spot to snag a home-run ball during batting practice, provided the hitter doesn't rocket the ball so high and so far that it lands on top of one of the awnings, which is what Darin Ruf did Friday before the game.
He did it with a swing so quick and fluid that it was easy to understand, in that single moment, why Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg has insisted on writing Ruf's name on the team's lineup card so often this spring. Ruf started Friday in left field in the Phillies' 6-5 loss to the Pirates, picking up two hits, including an RBI double, to lift his average to .270. He will start again Saturday night, this time at first base, when the Phillies play the Red Sox in Fort Myers.
His 37 spring-training at-bats are the most of any Phillies player - a statistic that fits both the esteem in which Sandberg holds him and the lengths Ruf went to this offseason to make himself more versatile and valuable.
"He's been one of the bright spots so far," Sandberg said. "I see nice adjustments. He did some good thinking over the offseason as far as moving closer to the plate, utilizing right-center field in his plate coverage, and he came in and applied it immediately. For a guy who's looking to be on the team and win a job, I think he's gone about it the right way."
After hitting 38 home runs at double-A Reading in 2012 as a full-time first baseman, Ruf split time at first and the two corner outfield spots in 73 games for the Phillies last year. He has 17 home runs and an .848 on-base-plus-slugging percentage over just 338 major-league at-bats. But with Ryan Howard presumably healthy again and at least three years and $85 million still remaining on his contract, the Phillies' decision-makers have made plain their reluctance to trust Ruf as an everyday outfielder. They signed Delmon Young before last season (only to release him in August) and Marlon Byrd before this one.
So Ruf spent the winter trying to become, he said, "more athletic" so that he'd be better able to play the outfield, to spell Byrd in right, Domonic Brown in left, or Howard at first base.
At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, and built like a giant pickle barrel, Ruf enlisted Joe Servais, a personal trainer and a former teammate of Ruf's at Creighton University, to help him improve his lateral quickness. Two days each week, Ruf lifted weights to maintain strength. Two other days each week, Servais would put him through agility drills to increase his foot speed.
"I'm not necessarily going to become a burner, runner-wise, but I can be a more efficient runner, quicker, more explosive, all those things," Ruf said. "I can always be better at first base, too. The extra quickness might help me get to a ball this year that I might not have gotten to last year."
Before Howard got his chance to start at first base - and subsequently won the 2005 National League rookie of the year award and the 2006 NL MVP award - the Phillies made a brief attempt to teach him to play left field.
"We joked about that last year," Ruf said. "They quickly axed that idea."
Sandberg, though, keeps sending Ruf out there this spring, and Ruf insisted that, if an injury to Brown forced him to play left field for a couple of weeks, he could handle it.
"I don't know if I'll ever feel similar to first," he said. "That only comes with playing time. I don't know if I'll get enough playing time in left to make up for probably 10 years of playing first base. I'm not really on the same level, but I feel like I'm just as confident when I go out there in my abilities."