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Washington Nationals’ Keibert Ruiz getting opportunity to be everyday catcher in D.C.

Acquired from the Dodgers this past summer, Keibert Ruiz is lined up as the Nationals’ No. 1 catcher this season…

Boston Red Sox v Washington Nationals Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

“A switch-hitter with plus contact skills from the left side, growing power, and improving defense behind the plate,” Baseball America’s scouts wrote in ranking Nationals’ catcher Keibert Ruiz the No. 11 overall prospect on their Top 100 for 2022, the backstop, “… has the potential to be a foundational player in Washington’s rebuild.”

Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo, who acquired Ruiz from the Los Angeles Dodgers as one of the four players received in return for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, said at the end of the 2021 campaign that the 23-year-old was, “... working on blocking balls better, and always working on his rapport with his pitchers,” and the timing of the club’s return to contention would rely, at least in part, on just how, “... quickly … Keibert Ruiz become[s] that frontline catcher,” they need in the nation’s capital.

The early returns, which include Ruiz putting up a .284/.348/.395 line, three doubles, and two homers in 23 games and 89 plate appearances in the majors over the final month of the season, were positive.

Washington Nationals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

“Ruiz has shown me things that we didn’t see when we scouted him,” Rizzo told reporters in the early days of October this past fall, with the work the catcher did with the Nationals’ pitchers and coaches once he came up in September standing out.

“He doesn’t strike out much, even at this level,” the GM continued, pointing to Ruiz’s plate discipline and patience, “and he shows that he could be a force offensively — that doesn’t come as a surprise.”

Initially upon coming to the majors, Ruiz struggled at the plate, going 3 for 28 (.107/.167/.107) in the first eight games and 30 PAs before he finished with a 20 for 53 run (.377/.441/.547) with a total of four walks and just one K over the final 15 games.

What changed?

“I think I’m not trying to do too much,” Ruiz said through translator Octavio Martinez in the final weeks of the season. “Before I was jumping a little bit and swinging at everything. Right now, I’m just trying to focus, and swing at my pitch, until I get to two strikes. I mean, that’s what I can control, and I’m just going to keep focused on that, keep working on that and get better every day.”

“He came here,” manager Davey Martinez said, in assessing Ruiz’s time in the majors with the Nationals in September.

“[Bullpen and catching coach] Henry [Blanco] has been working with him on catching, he’s been working with him on calling games,” the skipper continued. “He’s talked to Alex Avila, who has been a tremendous asset for us as far as helping with our young catchers right now, so [Ruiz has] definitely learned a lot, I’m watching him improve behind the plate, blocking balls, we talk about him setting up a little earlier, a little later with guys on base, he’s doing that, he’s doing it well.”

Martinez pointed to a late-season, bases-loaded walk which Ruiz took in Coors Field as an example of what he likes about the catcher’s approach at the plate.

“He had an unbelievable at bat where he walked. I mean, he was calling out strikes and balls when he was hitting,” the manager laughed, “and it was really loud too, and in the middle of an at-bat — and I thought, ‘You talk about a guy that really wants to win the at-bat and compete,’ I mean, that to me, was awesome, and I talked to him about it, and he said, ‘All I wanted to do was make sure I drove in a run,’ and he did by walking, he didn’t want to give in.”

“As we saw, Ruiz struggled early on, he wasn’t getting any hits,” the manager continue. “And we talked to him, we stayed with him, we told him he’s going to go through spurts like that, the hits will come, you just got to make sure you have good at-bats, get ready, and all of a sudden here he goes, and he just took off, and he’s hitting the ball well now.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ruiz said of his improvement over the final month of the season. “I’m not trying to hit a homer, I feel like if I stay in my approach there, the homer is going to come.”

Colorado Rockies v Washington Nationals Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The club is counting on their young No. 1 catcher to be able to produce like he did over the final weeks of 2021 throughout the 2022 campaign.

“We think that he can sustain that throughout a year, from both sides of the plate,” Martinez said. “We haven’t seen him really — he’s showed us a small sample size of him throwing, but we know he can catch and throw, and that’s important as we all know to stop the running game.

“So, we’re really excited about those guys, and some of the other guys that you guys haven’t seen that we got in a trade, that are doing really well, and they’ve done well since they’ve been here with us. So I’m excited to see those guys in Spring Training as well and see what we got.”