Signed as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2014 for a $140K signing bonus, catcher Keibert Ruiz debuted in the majors for LA during 2020’s 60-game COVID campaign, and came up earlier this season for another stretch of six games at the major league level, before he was traded to the Washington Nationals as one of the four prospects the Nats received in the deal that sent both Max Scherzer and Trea Turner outf to the West Coast.
The fact that he played eight games in the big leagues before getting called up to join his new team in time for last night’s series opener with the Philadelphia Phillies in the nation’s capital didn’t diminish the excitement of getting back to the majors for the 23-year-old.
“I was very happy,” he said in a Zoom call with reporters before his Nationals debut. “I just called my mom after they gave me the news I was going back to the big leagues. I called my mom and my dad and they were really happy too, and grateful for this opportunity, just looking forward to having some fun and getting to know everybody.”
Ruiz’s new manager was equally excited to have the catcher up and working with another of the four prospects that came over from the Dodgers, Josiah Gray, who was on the mound in the opener against the Nationals’ NL East rivals.
“I’m very excited about it,” Davey Martinez said when he spoke with reporters in his daily pre-game Zoom call. “We watched him play, I saw him play down in Rochester, he was swinging the bat well, he was doing the little things, so I just want to watch his daily routine, and watch him go out there and compete. I know, after he talked to you guys I watched him come back in and he went to go find Josiah to go sit down with him and talk to him a little bit about the game plan for tonight. So that’s pretty awesome that we get another young kid up here that has some kind of routine already, and he knows what he wants to do, so I’m looking forward to watching both of them compete today.”
Ruiz, Gray, 22-year-old starter Gerardo Carrillo, and 25-year-old outfielder Donovan Casey were the package that Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo extracted from LA in return for the future Hall of Fame starter in Scherzer and a year-plus of team control of Trea Turner. Just being included in a deal like that let Ruiz know what the front office in D.C. thought about him.
“It feels good,” he said of being wanted as part of a reboot for the Nationals’ organization.
“I feel proud of myself, and if they do that it’s because they see something in me.”
That’s not to say he’s going to let the pressure of being one of the players who was traded for Scherzer and Turner affect him.
“I’m not trying to put pressure on myself, just trying to keep playing better, keep playing my game, just do what I have to do to have good results,” Ruiz said.
Martinez penciled the catcher in as his No. 6 hitter for his first game with the new team, but that might not be where he’s hitting long if he continues to produce anything like what he’s put up in his minor league career.
Ruiz was 24 for 48 (.308/.365/.577) with six doubles, five homers, six walks, and five Ks over 20 games with the Nats’ top minor league affiliate, the Triple-A East’s Rochester Red Wings, and overall on the season, he’s put up a combined .310/.377/.616 line, 24 doubles, 21 home runs, 30 walks, and 33 Ks in 72 games played in the minors.
“I talked to [Rochester manager] Matt LeCroy,” Martinez explained. “[Ruiz] hit second a lot down there. I kind of want to ease his way. To me, the top of our lineup is kind of set, but somebody after [Yadiel] Hernández that can switch hit, with him in there, it’s kind of nice, so we put him six, we put Carter [Kieboom] seventh, and Luis [García] eighth, so it gives us a balanced lineup.”
Having been up before, Ruiz said, at least took away some of the nervousness he might feel.
“Yeah, I mean, I got a little bit of experience in the big leagues with the Dodgers,” he said.
“But like I said, I’ve got to control what I can control and just focus on what I can control.
“Keep working hard, not put too much pressure on myself, just keep getting better, just play the game, that’s what I’ve been doing, play the game, get my plan done, and that’s it.”
Ruiz popped out to short when he stepped up for the first time, with the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the first, and lined out to left the second time up against Phillies’ starter Zack Wheeler.
Another pop to short in the fifth left him 0 for 3 on the night against Wheeler, but he singled with a runner on and one out in the bottom of the eighth, connecting for his first hit with his new team, and he finished the night 1 for 4.
It took a little while for Ruiz and Gray to get on the same page, as the starter struggled with his command in a four inning start in which he gave up seven hits, three walks, and six runs.
“He did fine,” Martinez said after the loss. “Glad he got that first hit out of the way, but he handled himself well. He blocked some balls, blocked some balls, made some nice plays blocking balls out there.
“He’ll get another opportunity tomorrow, he’ll be in there tomorrow. But I’m glad he’s got that first one out of the way, it seems like young guys like that when they come to a new team or when they’re in the big leagues — whatever the case could be, it’s a different feeling, nerves are a little bit — and once you get that first hit, you kind of settle in a little bit and you relax a little bit better, so I’m expecting him to come out tomorrow and compete.”
“It feels good,” Ruiz said of getting his first hit for the Nationals out of the way.
“Take off the pressure a little bit. But like I said, I got to keep looking for my pitch and keep getting better.”