For nearly three months, Carlos Ruiz's season was defined by success and improvement. Now, he has returned to a familiar and unhappy place, trying to crawl out of an extended slump.
The Phillies catcher, who hit .219 last season, was a surprise early-season standout this year, and was batting .299 on June 9. Since that day, Ruiz's batting average has fallen 61 points, to .238, and he has had just seven hits in 54 at-bats. Manager Charlie Manuel started Paul Bako at catcher Friday and yesterday.
Ruiz insisted that he was healthy, though players often decline to reveal minor injuries.
"You can see it - I'm not seeing the ball well, and I'm not having good at-bats," he said. "It's bad right now. It's always something I have on my mind."
The pitching staff regards Ruiz as an excellent defender, as does Manuel. But the manager said many times in spring training that Ruiz would need a better offensive season than he had in 2008.
Catchers famously struggle at the plate late in the season, because of the physical and mental strain of the job. Bako, a 12-year veteran, acknowledged that catching makes offense difficult.
"Your hands, your legs, your body get more tired than another everyday guy's," Bako said. "And you're spending more time with the pitcher than maybe you are on your own hitting. If you look at, say, the five top-hitting catchers, those are not necessarily all the guys who are most concerned about defense. The good defensive catchers are truly more concerned with what is going on behind the plate."
Ruiz admitted that last season he "tried to do too much" at the plate, and slumped as a result.
"I know I can be a better hitter," he said. "That's what I'm working on every day."
The Phillies do not know yet when Raul Ibanez, who has a groin strain, will begin a minor-league rehabilitation assignment. The leftfielder will need 10 to 12 at-bats before returning to the team.
Ibanez was hopeful he would rehab this week.
"I'm kind of expecting that to happen," he said. "It's better every day."
Scott Eyre (calf strain) said he was 100 percent better and eager to return from the disabled list, which could happen today.
"My calf feels great," the reliever said. "Capital G-R-E-A-T. I want to play."
Clay Condrey (strained left side muscle) is expected to throw off a mound today for the first time since he went on the DL June 19, said pitching coach Rich Dubee. Condrey has played long-toss several times over the last week, and the team is pleased with his progress.
"Look at him out there," Dubee said before the game, gesturing toward Condrey jogging in the outfield. "He runs like a stallion."
After the reliever's first mound session, the team will determine whether he needs another or is ready to begin a minor-league rehabilitation assignment.
The Phillies and Mets are wearing hats with stars and stripes in the team logos this weekend, and the Mets are sporting red caps. The apparel is part of Major League Baseball's "Welcome Back Veterans" program, which raises money for returning veterans.