Veteran Darin Ruf continuing spring push to make Giants' 2020 roster

Veteran Darin Ruf continuing spring push to make Giants' 2020 roster

Darin Ruf doubled to the track in right his first time up in last Thursday's simulated game at Oracle Park, and a few innings later he pulled a double to left. It turns out that's a familiar feeling for the former Philadelphia Phillie. 

"My claim to fame here is hitting a double to Triples Alley off [Madison] Bumgarner back in the day," he said afterward. "I didn't realize that triples were cool and I need to stretch it out next time."

Triples Alley still is here, just a little less daunting. Ruf still is here, too, despite some serious negotiations to help him find a job elsewhere when MLB suspended spring training. 

The 33-year-old spent the last three seasons mashing in South Korea, and when MLB went on a long hiatus, Ruf got an offer to again head overseas to play in Japan. But MLB had frozen rosters, and that meant Ruf could not be released or sold. It was an unfortunate consequence of the shutdown, keeping a non-roster invitee from going overseas and potentially making significantly more money in the summer of 2020 as his career winds down. 

"It was definitely a weird situation for everybody," Ruf said. "I think everyone handled it the best way they could. I respect the Giants' position to want to hold onto me knowing that I could possibly help them if the season got off, and I know they could respect my point of view where I wanted to play baseball in an uncertain time. I had an opportunity to do that. I wanted to have a little bit of certainty in my life with my family and things like that, but I think everyone handled it very professionally with as much respect as we could through the tough times."

Ruf instead stayed in the U.S. and found reps where he could, including with some friends at his old high school. And a funny thing happened as MLB worked toward a return that will come far later than it did in South Korea or Japan.

Negotiations for a restart included an expanded roster and, crucially, a permanent DH spot. Ruf watched nervously as MLB and the MLBPA failed to come to an agreement, but he breathed a sigh of relief when the final plan still included a DH. That puts him in a significantly better spot to make the Opening Day roster.

Even before all of that, though, Ruf was making a strong case. He was 12-for-28 in spring training with three homers, five doubles and a triple, validating his decision to stay in the U.S. this season. Those strong at-bats have carried over to Spring Training 2.0.

"He continues to find the barrel," manager Gabe Kapler said. "He continues to drive the baseball, he continues to have professional at-bats and use the entire field. I'm really excited about the progress that Darin is making."

Ruf played five seasons in Philadelphia, but that was before Kapler's two-year run there. He said he always wanted to stay in the United States and he tried to wait as long as possible every offseason before signing to play in the KBO, but free agency can move slowly for veterans who are limited defensively. Ruf said his agent spoke to the Giants the last couple of offseasons and this past winter was able to reach a deal with Farhan Zaidi. 

"It was great to know I had the opportunity to come back here," he said. "I know the division, I know there's a lot of lefties. I knew I could possibly carve out a role on this team and I was really excited for that."

Ruf's five seasons in Philadelphia don't particularly stand out. He was never a full-time player, but he hit 35 homers in 737 at-bats. His career OPS, though, is just .747, and he's worth negative WAR, per baseball-reference. 

The Giants don't really care about the overall picture. They see a very defined skill, one that's a need on this roster and in this division. Ruf has a .299 career average against lefties with a .379 on-base percentage and .542 slugging percentage. That'll play. Ruf said that's where his opportunities came in Philadelphia so he focused on honing his craft against lefties, and that makes him perfect for this division. The Los Angeles Dodgers will have Clayton Kershaw, Julio Urias and Alex Wood in their rotation, and the Arizona Diamondbacks feature Bumgarner and Robbie Ray at the top of theirs. 

Zaidi and Gabe Kapler have talked Ruf up in recent weeks, and he at the very least seems a strong option to DH. Kapler wants more than that, though. 

"We don't want Darin Ruf to be just one thing -- we don't want him to be just a DH or even just a first baseman or a left fielder," he said. "We want him to be a candidate to play all of those positions."

Kapler said the Giants simply want Ruf to make the plays at first and in left that should be made. There don't need to be any highlights. Hopefully those come at the plate, and they could come early on in the season. 

The Giants will go heavy on platoons and their starting first baseman, Brandon Belt, currently is nursing a sore heel. It wouldn't be a shock to see Ruf in the lineup for the first game of the season, and with the Giants potentially facing three lefties in that first series, he could be a valuable piece for a team that hopes to get off to a hot start and surprise the rest of the NL West. 

[RELATED: Brandon Belt sidelined as opener approaches]

With a little leeway from MLB, Ruf likely would have been in Japan right now. Instead, he's at Oracle Park, continuing his strong push for a roster spot. 

"I'm probably closer towards the end of my career and I definitely wanted to play at some point this year," he said. "Luckily we were able to try to get a season going here. I think if things keep moving this way, we will."

[GIANTS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Giants return to Oracle Park with more than 10,000 cutouts in stands

Giants return to Oracle Park with more than 10,000 cutouts in stands

Giants closer Trevor Gott lost control of a 96 mph fastball in the ninth inning Tuesday night and watched from the mound as it sailed over catcher Tyler Heineman's glove and hit the backstop. Back in the broadcast booth at Oracle Park, Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper chuckled.

"President Bush didn't even flinch," Krukow cracked. 

The ball hit the net about five feet from cutouts of the late President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara, who were longtime Houston residents. This is what baseball looks like in 2020, a year with no fans. 

The cutout programs have become popular with MLB clubs, and at every stop on the three-city road trip, the Giants saw plenty of them. The Dodgers are filling up their lower deck and outfield bleachers, with cutouts of celebrity Dodger fans getting prime seats behind the plate. The Rockies filled the first three rows behind the plate with cutouts of former Rockies players and creepy mascot Dinger. 

The Astros took an odd and random approach, filling two sections right behind the plate but leaving the second through fifth rows open in an adjacent section that was clearly visible on TV broadcasts. They filled one section down the right-field line, a couple of rows behind the dugout, the Crawford Boxes in left field and two sections right behind the home bullpen. The rest of the park was mostly empty. 

[BALK TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

It was all a little confusing, especially for players who have plenty of time before and during games to look around. 

"I don't really understand what they're trying to do. They have random sections in the outfield empty and then they have random sections completely full, and then they didn't fill up behind home plate," outfielder Austin Slater said. "And then the Rockies only went with ex-players and they had like 10 or 15 Todd Heltons in there, which was kind of odd. I think the way that we're doing it is probably the best, just fill up as much of the stadium as possible, starting with behind home plate and go from there."

That's what the Giants are doing at Oracle Park, with the help of a fan base that remains passionate even in what so far is another losing season. When the Giants return home tonight, they will see 5,459 additional cutouts that were installed earlier this week, bringing the total to 10,205. 

The lower deck is pretty much completely filled behind the plate and down both lines, with cutouts spilling over into other sections, too. Another round of installations is happening Monday and Tuesday, with the Giants approaching 13,000 cutouts that have been installed or requested thus far.

[RELATED: Battle of Bay takes on extra meaning this year]

It took some getting used to, but players are on board with the program, with both Slater and outfielder Hunter Pence recently saying that they do help when you're standing on the field in an otherwise empty park. 

"Psychologically it does help to have the cardboard cutouts, as many as we do," Pence said. "For whatever reason, just knowing that the fans are excited to see themselves as a foul ball goes that way or whatever is the case, you feel kind of the spirit of the people."

Battle of the Bay has extra meaning for Giants, A's in short season

Battle of the Bay has extra meaning for Giants, A's in short season

Trevor Cahill knows all about the Battle of the Bay. The right-hander was drafted by the A's in 2006, made it to the big leagues three years later, and spent three seasons in Oakland before getting dealt. In 2018 he returned to the A's for 20 more starts, including a solid one in a win over the Giants. 

This time around, Cahill is on the other side of the rivalry. It won't be the same without fans jawing at their Bay Area counterparts, and Cahill, after his Giants debut Wednesday, recalled how intense some of those matchups used to be. 

"When I came up with the A's the Giants series was a big one," he said. "You could feel that excitement because my rookie year we weren't in a playoff race, so that was the matchup every year. Oakland fans always came out. It was exciting."

[BALK TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

The first three of six matchups will be played at Oracle Park this weekend, with more than 10,000 cutouts in the stands instead of fans. But in an odd way, the games might be more meaningful than ever. 

Because of the shortened season, the Battle of the Bay makes up 10 percent of each side's schedule, the equivalent of 16 games in a normal year. These matchups will go a long way toward deciding each team's fate, and right now they're headed in different directions. 

The A's enter with the best record in the American League (13-6) and a four-game lead in the AL West. At 8-12, the Giants are last in the NL West after a 3-7 road trip. They need a quick turnaround to keep hope alive of grabbing a spot in the expanded playoffs. 

The Giants are at least set up well from a starting standpoint, with Johnny Cueto, Kevin Gausman and Logan Webb. But they'll face Frankie Montas, Jesus Luzardo and Sean Manaea, getting a close-up look at what is perhaps the biggest difference for the two organizations in the coming years. 

The A's built their lineup around the Matts -- Chapman and Olson -- and as good as those two are, the Giants don't have to squint too much to picture a day when perhaps Marco Luciano, Joey Bart, Heliot Ramos and Hunter Bishop can give them a similar homegrown blend. But the starting staffs are wildly different, with the A's boasting a young and super-talented group.

Montas, acquired in a trade with then-Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi, is 27 and a Cy Young candidate. Luzardo, 22, is one of the game's most exciting prospects. Manaea is off to a brutal start, but the 28-year-old has a track record of big league success already. Left-hander A.J. Puk, another top prospect, will join the group if he can ever stay healthy.

[RELATED: Slater, Solano's injuries expose Giants' offense in road loss]

The Giants have Webb, 23, locked into their long-term rotation, and he's off to a good start, but Gausman will be a free agent at the end of the year and Cueto at the end of 2021. The rest of their mix consists of Cahill, Tyler Anderson, Drew Smyly and Jeff Samardzija, with the latter two currently on the injured list. There's a decent chance none of those four are around next season. 

The Giants have Sean Hjelle, Seth Corry, Tristan Beck and others on the way, and they drafted Kyle Harrison and Nick Swiney in June, with hopes that both are top-end starters. For now, though, they're piecing the rotation together, often a day at a time. 

It's the biggest difference between the two sides right now, but this weekend it might not matter. Webb has thrown well all year and Gausman and Cueto are coming off their best starts. Gabe Kapler will need all three to step up this weekend because the pitching on the other side looks tough, and the Giants can't afford to give up any more ground.