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September 02, 2016

Ruf returns, starts, and is eager for more opportunity with Phillies

Darin Ruf arrived in the Phillies clubhouse for the first time in nearly four months and saw his name was already in the starting lineup.

Ruf, who outplayed fellow first baseman Ryan Howard in March and entered the season as a platoon partner in April, didn’t get his bat going in limited playing time and was optioned to Triple-A Lehigh Valley after the Phillies' first 35 games of the season. He played regularly with the IronPigs and he hit: .294/.356/.529 with 20 home runs in 95 games.

And now the Phillies, losers of five of their last six and coming off a three-game sweep to Washington when they compiled a grand total of nine hits, need offense and so Ruf is back.

“He had a good year at Triple-A,” Mackanin said. “(We’re) looking for offense.”

Ruf, who turned 30 in late July, gave the Phillies offense last year against left-handed pitching, which made his somewhat quick demotion earlier this season a little odd. Ruf hit .371 with eight home runs and a 1.107 OPS against left-handers last season.

Among MLB players with at least 100 plate appearances against lefites, Ruf’s OPS was tied with Seattle’s Nelson Cruz for tops in baseball. It was a stat Mackanin repeated throughout the spring when talking about the very real platoon that was coming, turning former MVP Ryan Howard into a part-time player.

But Ruf just started 12 of the Phillies' first 35 games, and never more than two games in a row. And former prospect Tommy Joseph came out of nowhere and had a monster first month at Triple-A, jumping into the radar and then into Ruf’s spot on the big league roster.

“That was tough,” Ruf said Friday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park, where the Phillies will begin a three-game series with Atlanta. “It kind of opens your mind. Like, I’d say to myself some days, man, ‘I led the league, MLB, in OPS against left-handed pitching last year and I can’t find a job.’ I’m thinking why is that? You just have to remind yourself it’s a long process.

“And hopefully if I take care of business here I’ll be back and maybe in an expanded role beyond that. You’ve just got to try to stay positive and take advantage of the at-bats that you’re getting up here.”

Mackanin didn’t say how long of a look Ruf would get and the Phillies' lack of comfort in the past with him in left field regularly makes it uncertain how much playing time he’ll get this month. But with an offense that ranks last in baseball in runs (492), OBP (.296), and OPS (.681), if Ruf hits, it might be hard to keep him on the bench.

“We’ll see how he looks,” Mackanin said. “I don’t know for sure. I’ve got so many outfielders I’ve got to kind of juggle that around. But I need offense obviously. He’s been getting consistent at-bats and I’m going to see how he looks.”

No matter what happens this month, Ruf will enter an uncertain offseason next month.

He’s out of options but will remain with the organization if he’s kept on the 40-man roster and then tendered a contract on Dec. 2. But that’s not necessarily a guarantee since the Phillies have more than a half dozen prospects they have to add to the 40-man to protect from the Rule 5 draft.

If Ruf is outrighted off the roster and clears waivers, before the Phils would tender him a contract on Dec. 2, he can become a minor league free agent after the World Series.

And he could possibly find a job overseas, too. On Thursday, reported that Ruf was getting some interest from Japanese professional teams.

“No idea,” Ruf said with a laugh when asked where he thought he’d be in six months. “I’m finally out of options so I’d either have to be designated or stick in the big leagues for the rest of my career, which is hopefully the case. But you never know in this game.”

It’s possible the Phils could have a spot for him on their bench next season, with Ryan Howard gone and not a whole lot of experienced first base depth in the system. But he’s only played regularly with the team in the second half of 2013 (14 home runs, .810 OPS in 70 starts).

The fact that he’s started more than three major league games in a row just four times since in three seasons (and more than five once, when he started seven straight games in May of 2015) might be enough proof that a fresh start somewhere else could be beneficial. Despite making his major league debut four years ago this month, Ruf, with 178 big league starts, has fewer career starts than Cesar Hernandez (260), even though Hernandez didn't begin playing regularly until last June.

“I don’t think so,” Ruf said of whether a change of scenery could help. “I think I can help this team in some sort of role. It’s just if they have a role that they see me succeeding in and helping them. I know I can help them. It’s just if they see me and what I can do, if they can make some opportunity.”

In addition to Ruf, the Phillies added two relievers, right-hander Colton Murray and left-hander Patrick Schuster, to the active roster on Friday, their first game since rosters expanded. Andres Blanco was also activated from the disabled list; the veteran utility infielder missed all of August after requiring surgery on a fractured finger on his left hand.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21