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Posted: Thursday October 30, 2008 12:24AM; Updated: Thursday October 30, 2008 10:57AM
Ben Reiter Ben Reiter >
INSIDE BASEBALL

Ruiz played role of unlikely hero

Story Highlights

Carlos Ruiz's nightly offensive contributions were a surprise in October

Ruiz was clutch at the plate and handled the Phillies' staff with aplomb

He spent eight years in the minors before joining the Phillies in 2006

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The plastic sheeting hung in tight rolls from the ceiling of the home clubhouse at Citizens Bank Ballpark late Monday night -- the combination of a driving rainstorm and a blundering Bud Selig meant that the clubbies would have to wait to unfurl it to protect the players' lockers from that long-awaited spray of champagne for at least another evening, if not two, if not forever -- and the Phillies, for the most part, were angry. Manager Charlie Manuel was apparently so distraught that he couldn't even bring himself to hold a press conference. Ryan Howard ended his brief remarks to the media swarm with a terse, sarcastic "Goodnight!" Shane Victorino brusquely informed a Japanese television reporter that he was in no mood to speak on camera, before stalking off ("But what about your fans in Japan?" the reporter called out in Victorino's wake).

The Panamanian catcher Carlos Ruiz, though, stood in front of his locker, his clothes still filthy from the hours he'd just spent crouching down in the mud, and for 15 minutes good-naturedly answered questions from reporters, one-by-one, in both Spanish and in the English he's painstakingly learned in order to communicate with his pitching staff, 10 of whose 11 members are U.S.-born. Yes, conditions were brutal out there. No, starter Cole Hamels couldn't work with his usual efficacy -- never before had Ruiz seen him throw a changeup right over the middle of the plate, he said. Yes, he wished the Phillies could have wrapped the World Series that night. Then Ruiz went into the shower room -- only to return after he had bathed to patiently answer questions for perhaps 15 minutes more.

The 29-year-old Ruiz is used to being forced to wait to get what he wants, and he's been through hardships far worse than his Phillies faced Monday night. His police officer father died when he was seven, leaving his mother, a schoolteacher, to raise him and his two younger brothers. When he was a slow-footed 19-year-old middle infielder in David, Panama, he waited for a major-league scout -- any scout -- to take notice of him, and when the Phillies' Allan Lewis finally did, in 1998, he signed him as not a second baseman but a catcher, for $10,000. Then he waited through eight years of torturous bus-rides in the Phillies' minor-league system, never hitting more than five home runs in a season before he reached Double-A Reading in 2004, when he hit 17. Ruiz didn't play in his first big league game until '06, when he was 27, and didn't become the regular starter until last season -- so, really, what was a bit of mud, a few questionable decisions by the commissioner's office and a few unexpected days of waiting, to him?

"It's a great moment right now," he said, even as many of his teammates fumed. "I'm so happy. I know this moment, I'll never forget in my life. You never know if you [are going to] come back to the World Series. So I'm just trying to enjoy the time, and hopefully we can win everything."

Two nights later, the Phillies did win everything, for the first time in 28 years. They won, in part, due to the contributions of their stars -- the deserving Series MVP Hamels, who would have more than likely become the first pitcher to win all five of his starts in the playoffs if not for Monday night's rain; the perennial NL MVP candidates Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley; the overpowering closer Brad Lidge, who after closing out Game 5 on Wednesday finished 2008 with 48 saves in as many opportunities.

But equally crucial, perhaps to a surprising degree, were the contributions the Phillies got from their role players, their supporting actors, like Geoff Jenkins, who set the tone in Game 5 (Part Deux) by crushing a double off the wall in his second and final World Series at-bat, and Jayson Werth, the lanky right fielder who didn't become an every day starter until mid-June, yet led Philadelphia with a .444 batting average in the Series and drove in Jenkins with a shallow bloop. Most crucial of all, though, might have been the performance of the 5-foot-10, 202-pound Ruiz, whom teammates affectionately call "Chooch."

"He's one of the biggest reasons why we won this World Series," said Lidge about half an hour after he'd thrown the Series' final pitch to Ruiz. "I hope he gets his due, because he deserves it."

What Ruiz was expected to do was to handle Philadelphia's pitching staff with aplomb. "He blocks the ball good," said Manuel. "He receives the ball good. He's really improved in calling the game. The pitchers really relate to him good and he throws good." Hamels considers last season to have been a "break-in year" in which Ruiz accrued intimate knowledge of each pitcher's tendencies, and he's put that knowledge to good use this season. "Jamie Moyer is always talking to me," explained Ruiz on Monday. "He tells me, you have to have good communication with your starting pitchers. Ask questions how they like to work. This year it's worked very good, so far."

Philadelphia's staff improvement -- they jumped from 23rd in the majors in ERA (4.77) in 2007 to sixth (3.88) in '08 -- could be partially attributed to Ruiz's steadier hand behind the plate. So could their stellar Series, in which they posted a 2.83 ERA and received unexpected gems from Jamie Moyer (in Game 3) and Joe Blanton (in Game 4). Ruiz started all 14 postseason games at catcher, including Game 5, in which he made an acrobatic lunge at a sliding Jason Bartlett in the top of the seventh. Had Bartlett scored, he would have given the Rays a 4-3 lead, but Ruiz slapped a tag on his right cheek.

What the Phillies could not have expected, but only hoped for, were Ruiz's offensive contributions. After a fine rookie season in which he hit .259 with 54 RBIs, Ruiz struggled this year, finishing at .219 and driving in just 31 runs. In the World Series, though, his .375 batting average trailed only Werth's; his 11 total bases trailed only Werth and Howard; and his Game 3 performance, in which he homered in the bottom of the second to give the Phillies a 2-1 lead, and then hit the bottom of the ninth, bases-loaded infield single that won the game at 1:47 a.m., turned the Series in Philadelphia's favor for good. "When Chooch hit that ball, I think I went from my seat to the ceiling," Moyer said of Ruiz's game-winning bouncer.

As the Phillies rushed inside to give each other champagne facials in their clubhouse Wednesday night (one blast came from a bottle that was announced to be "Jay-Z's Champagne"; it came in a black velvet purse), Ruiz stood off to the side for a few extra moments, savoring, perhaps, the last few moments of waiting. Then he jumped into the fray, and took it upon himself to spray the back of the head of Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter, who was being interviewed by a local affiliate while wearing a Phillies cap that looked suspiciously as if it had been resting on a Sports Authority shelf a few hours before. Ruiz's locker was just feet away, but his clothes stayed dry. Those rolls of plastic sheeting, which were now revealed to have pennants that read "Philadelphia Phillies: World Champions" taped to them, had finally been unfurled.

 
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