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]