TRENTON — Throughout the Delaware Valley, the clarion call has come in near-deafening unison. Phillies fans want Darin Ruf at Citizens Bank Park, and they want him there yesterday.
They want the Eastern League’s Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year to continue his show of shock and awe on Broad Street, not Centre Street.
They want the man who just broke Ryan Howard’s Reading single-season home run record to see if he can defy scouts and prospectors, nearly all of whom have tabbed Ruf’s big league future as somewhere between non-existent and fringy.
In a few weeks, those fans, in desperate need of a pick-me-up in the waning days of a lost season, may well get their wish.
For now, Ruf has a few barriers left to overcome, and unfortunately for the Thunder, they’re first on his list.
The slates are cleaned once the postseason rolls around, but Ruf has done enough damage against Trenton this year to haunt the nightmares of its hurlers. Against the Thunder this season, Ruf has put forth numbers unimaginable even in the virtual world.
“I think we tried everything over that last series when he hit like four (home runs),” Thunder hurler Mikey O’Brien said. “He’s in the zone right now. Every team in the league was trying to figure out how to pitch to him. He’s locked in; just try and pitch around him and hope he chases.”
In a dozen games, he’s torched Trenton for a .458 average, on-base and slugging percentages of .509 and 1.063 and has smashed eight of his minor league-best 38 longballs.
He’s as ever-present a threat as a Northeast thunderstorm, and the Thunder will have to find a way to weather him if they hope to advance to the Eastern League Championship Series next week against either Bowie or Akron.
Still, those scouts who try to put the kibosh on fans envisioning Ruf as their team’s next cleanup hitter aren’t doing so out of spite. They’re doing so because there are holes in his swing, and a pitcher with enough stuff and command can use those weaknesses to neutralize Reading’s biggest threat.
“There’s two ways (to attack him),” one scout explained. “You have to keep him off-balance; he likes to hit the fastball. You have to mix your pitches in, you have to keep him off-balance. He’s got some holes and you can exploit them, but he doesn’t miss many mistakes, so you’ve got to be precise.
“There’s times where you can get over his hands with a fastball.´... He wants to extend and he wants to pull. Most of the home runs I’ve seen him hit have been to left field. He doesn’t miss those offerings out over the plate.”
And although he has run roughshod over the Thunder and the Eastern League all season long, one Trenton hurler has found great success against the man fans have dubbed “Babe Ruf.” Over the last two seasons, Brett Marshall — who will take the ball opposite Austin Hyatt in Game 1 on Wednesday — has faced Ruf five times and held him to just one extra-base hit.
Marshall is aware of his success against Ruf, but knows that one mistake will turn all of that into history.
“For me, I have a lot of confidence against him. We’re kind of friends and played together at the All-Star game. I learned a little about him. Between this year and last year I’ve faced him a lot. I think he’s like 1 for 20 against me, so that gives me a lot of confidence,” Marshall said. “But he’s still a good hitter. I can’t take it for granted. You have to make your pitches to him. He seems to be locked in. If you leave a ball up he’s going to hit you hard.”
For a little extra help making Ruf an afterthought, Trenton might want to place a call to Kevin Boles and the Portland Sea Dogs. In their season-closing series with Reading, Portland pitchers held Ruf to just 3 for 16 with a run and an RBI. If the Thunder can do the same, there’s a good chance they’ll play for their third Eastern League crown.