CLEARWATER, Fla. - A few minutes before the first pitch, Carlos Ruiz stood along a fence at the Carpenter Complex and obligingly signed autographs for a dozen or so fans.

Yes, the extended spring training program is a pretty laid-back operation.

It didn't take long for the serious purpose of Chooch's presence in this low-level setting to come up, though. "Carlos, how's the back?" somebody yelled.

That's the question, isn't it? How was the lower back inflammation that sidelined him for more than a week and finally landed him on the disabled list? After testing it by catching five innings and going 0-for-4 in a game against assorted Yankees minor leaguers, his verdict: So far, so good.

"I took a couple big swings and I didn't feel anything," he said. "It was a good day. My right side feels real strong. I want to be on the [major league] field so bad, but I want to make sure I come back 100 percent. I don't want to hurt it again and lose more time."

Ruiz accompanied the big-league team to Florida, worked out at Sun Life Stadium before Monday night's game and then caught a flight to Tampa that landed around 10:30 p.m.

As always, the big test will be to see how he feels when he gets up.

"I think I'm ready to go, but I did a lot of work so I hope I feel good in the morning," he said.

If all goes according to plan, Ruiz will be the designated hitter in this afternoon's extended game, then catch Roy Oswalt when the Class A Clearwater Threshers host Palm Beach at Bright House Field tomorrow night.

Ruiz went through a thorough workout yesterday. He took six swings. One he missed completely, one he fouled off, twice he grounded out to shortstop and twice he popped up to the left side. He said his timing was a little off, which is understandable under the circumstances.

He also threw to second trying to catch a runner attempting to steal. And when he didn't get a chance to block any pitches in the dirt, he headed for the batting tunnels down the rightfield line from Ashburn Field and worked on that for 10 minutes with minor league field coordinator Mike Compton.

Ruiz already has a reservation on a flight to Atlanta on Friday morning. And while the recovery rate from injuries is impossible to predict accurately, he has every intention of being on that plane.