Reading Phillies superhero…errr, outfielder Darin Ruf slugged his way to a year that will go down as one of the best in Eastern League history, hitting a minor league-high 38 home runs with 104 RBI and a .317 batting average, the latter putting him just a few points shy of winning the circuit’s triple crown.
A big kid with a big personality — the 26-year-old stands and 6-foot-3 and weighs in at 220 pounds — Ruf has caught the attention of a Phillies fanbase desperate for someone to cheer for after a big league season gone awry. In the month of August alone, he hit 20 home runs, which catapulted him over Ryan Howard’s long-standing franchise home run record.
And yet, he’s remained in Double-A all year and will be a key factor in the Eastern League Division Series between Trenton and Reading, set to start later today at 7:05 PM at First Energy Stadium.
“I know I have to prove myself, and I planned on being here all year,” Ruf said. “It kind of helps comfort-wise being in the same park…I’ve been here all year, I know the guys and I know some of the pitchers in the league. It really helps to be somewhere for a full year and moving all around and having to re-adjust to different things.”
Ruf has made steady progress through the Phillies organization after they selected him in the 20th round of the 2009 draft, giving him a senior sign bonus out of Creighton. He’s batted over .300 in three of his four minor league seasons, but hit more home runs this season than in the previous three years combined. A “realistic person,” Ruf says, he wasn’t sure if he’d ever get a shot at the next level. Now, fans are clamoring for him to be in Philadelphia already.
“I knew this was a big year for me and my career,” Ruf said.
“(It was big to see) if I wanted to keep playing baseball as a career and keep moving up or if it was just something where I’d play for a couple years in minor league baseball and move on in life. I put in a ton of effort over the off-season, trying to get in shape and doing some things here and there to not necessarily please the front office, but give them a perspective of me that this kid is serious about it. I wanted to come out this year and have a solid year. Hopefully, this has convincing me that I can make a career out of it, as well as other people too.”
A first baseman for the majority of his career, Ruf has recently seen a lot of time in left field. While not exactly fleet of foot — he somehow stole two bases this season — he manages to play his relatively new position fairly well.
“I take a lot of pride in my defense,” he said. “It’s one of the main reasons I played in college. At Creighton, I think we led or were in the top three in team defense every single year I was there. That’s what we built the program around, and I wasn’t going to play if I didn’t buy into a defense-first philosophy. I had to play solid at first base defensively; pick balls, keep balls in the infield and do the little things…it’s something I take a lot of pride in.”
Thus, a label of being just a bat or just a designated hitter in an American League setting would not necessarily sit well with him.
“It does bother me, because I’ve heard (Reading manager) Dusty (Wathan) say a few times that he thinks I can play first base, and whenever you have that confidence out of your manager, it means a lot,” Ruf said.
“There are things I can still improve on, like my range and my quickness and things like that, but I don’t want to be one-dimensional. I want to play defense and help my team because if eight or nine other guys have to be out on the field, I feel like I have to pull my weight out there too.”
That has never been a problem at the plate. His home run totals have increased each year; going from 3 in 2009 to 9 to 17 and then all the way to 38 this season. Ruf attributes incorporating his legs and hands a lot more in his swing over the past two seasons to generating a level of power he’s never had before.
“Maybe a combination of the two, but this year I just feel like my hands have been pretty quick all year as far as getting to the inside pitch better than I have in the past, even staying through the outside pitch,” he said.
“Those adjustments and having a better feel for hitting in general (have led to the power). Just recognizing (the difference) between a good pitch to hit and a pitcher’s pitch that you might not be able to drive as well. Not missing the mistake pitch when it’s there. That’s the difference between being a major league hitter and a minor league hitter, those guys don’t miss the mistake pitches.”
Giving anything to the newly crowned Eastern League MVP that he can drive would certainly be a mistake on the part of Thunder pitching. But regardless of how things go for him in the postseason, it’s been a year to remember for the Omaha, Nebraska product.
“I’m enjoying it,” said Ruf, whose teammates have circulated photos of his face photoshopped onto Babe Ruth’s body on Twitter.
“They’ve been giving me a hard time, but it’s a lot of fun. Let them have their fun, but I expect it to stop as soon as I don’t hit a home run one game.”
Trenton is hoping to silence both Ruf’s bat and his teammates’ social media accounts starting Wednesday night.
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com