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March 29, 2016

Who's on first? Ruf outplaying Howard this spring

CLEARWATER, Fla. – In each of the last two days, Pete Mackanin wrote out a lineup card that had the names of both Ryan Howard and Darin Ruf among his starting nine. It’s the luxury a National League manager has in spring training: using a designated hitter.

But Mackanin and the Phillies will not have that option come next week. And, as camp breaks, the former MVP (Howard) is struggling while Ruf is swinging a potent stick.

On Tuesday, for example, Ruf went 2-for-2 with a pair of singles (the first with two outs, driving in the Phillies only run) off Masahiro Tanaka before the game was rained out. Howard went 0-for-2 with two strikeouts.

It’s pretty much gone that way all spring. So how is the lineup going to be regularly written out next week?

“I have no idea,” Ruf said. “It’ll be interesting.”

Following Tuesday’s rain-shortened game, Mackanin said that Howard would be in the lineup against Cincinnati Reds right-hander Raisel Iglesias on Opening Day at Great American Ball Park on Monday.

But he was asked if his opinion entering camp had changed. All winter long, Mackanin said he likely planned to platoon Howard and Ruf in 2016.

“Let's put it this way: I need to see more. More production,” Mackanin said of Howard, who was sidelined for a week earlier in the spring schedule with a flu-like illness. “In his defense, he's behind everybody. I'd like to think he caught up. … This is performance. We have to get performance. Numbers matter.”

The numbers are not flattering for the 36-year-old Howard. Including the two at-bats from Tuesday’s game, eventually canceled by rain, Howard is hitting .208 (10-for-48) with 18 strikeouts in 16 games.

Since hitting a home run for the second straight day on March 18, Howard is 2-for-19 with 11 strikeouts in his last seven games. If you were to include the five at-bats he got in a minor league intrasquad game on Sunday, when the Phillies played in Fort Myers, Howard has gone 3-for-24 (.125) with 15 strikeouts in the last 11 days.

“I'd like to see better at-bats,” Mackanin said. “We've got some games left and it's only spring training, but.. .”

… but maybe it’s time to play Ruf more regularly, in the same way the Phillies had Carlos Ruiz on the bench and Cameron Rupp in the lineup more often in the second half of the 2015 season.

The 29-year-old Ruf is hitting .302 (16-for-53) in 22 games this spring, if you include Tuesday’s game. He has four home runs and almost as many walks (8) as strikeouts (10).

And Ruf, who homered off Toronto left-hander Randy Choate on Monday, has fared just fine against right-handed pitching, too. He’s hitting .359 (14-for-39) with five doubles and two home runs against right-handers this spring.

If Howard was going to get a chance this spring to prove himself against left-handers (whom he has struggled mightily against in the last half decade), Ruf should have been given an equal opportunity against right-handers, right?

Then again, Ruf has proven in the past he can perform against right-handers when given the chance. In 2013, the only time he played regularly, after Howard had knee surgery, Ruf hit .269 with 11 home runs and an .863 OPS in 212 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers.

“I think I’ve said it multiple times, once you get in a rhythm out there, no matter who you’re facing, you’re comfortable in the box,” Ruf said of his spring success off pitchers, both left handed and right. “I feel like at the end of last year I did better against lefties and righties when I was playing everyday. You find a way. You have to find a way to try to have success if you want to stick around and be an everyday guy. Through everyday at-bats I feel like you get that comfort level. You see pitches more. You get more of an idea of what they’re trying to do against you.”

At this point, it behooves the Phillies to play Ruf more often.

Howard is in the final year of his contract. Ruf, at worst could turn into a useful complementary piece for the future, or, at best, turn into an underrated middle of the lineup core (a poor man’s Pat Burrell?) or trade chip to a team looking for right-handed pop.

One thing is clear, even if how Mackanin plans to write out his lineup regularly is not: the front office will not meddle with how the manager works it all out this season.

“Pete's job is to manage to win that day, look at today and maybe a few weeks out,” general manager Matt Klentak said. “My job is to make sure I'm looking a month out, a year out, five years out and how we balance it all together. He's aware of the sort of how I'm dealing with the long term and he's fully supportive of it. And I'm aware he needs to manage the team on a daily basis to give us the best chance to win that night. With specific respect to first base, I think we've got two good options over there both of whom can hit in the middle of the lineup and hit the ball a long way.”

PHIL-INS: The final spot on the Phillies bench could come down to newly-acquired Will Venable (1-for-2 on Tuesday) and fellow left-handed hitting outfielder Cedric Hunter (.259, three home runs, one triple, four doubles this spring). Mackanin was asked if Hunter had any advantage since he’s been in camp all spring. “That’s safe to say,” Mackanin said. “Let’s put it this way: Hunter has had the best at-bats of anybody other than (Maikel) Franco in camp in my opinion. I’ll put it that way. Quality at-bats.” … Jeremy Hellickson will start the Grapefruit League finale on Wednesday in Clearwater against the Houston Astros. … The Phillies will play on Thursday night at Reading in the inaugural Futures Series. (The second game is at Citizens Bank Park on Saturday). Among the players scheduled to play against the Phillies: shortstop J.P. Crawford and outfielders Roman Quinn and Nick Williams. Cornelius Randolph, the team’s 2015 first-round pick who could open the season at Low-A Lakewood, will not play in the Futures Series.