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Rio Ruiz impresses in return to Orioles’ lineup, just in time for potential position battle

The Orioles don’t yet officially have a third base competition, but with one potentially looming, Rio Ruiz chose the right time to return to the lineup and play the way he did Monday.

After missing more than a week with an illness, Ruiz doubled twice and made a diving stop in the field in what was also his first game since reports surfaced that the Orioles are nearing a deal with free agent Maikel Franco.

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No current Oriole has played in more games for them over the past two years than Ruiz, who as a December 2018 waiver claim was one of the first acquisitions made by executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias’ front office. Yet, like many Orioles in that time, he’s often performed inconsistently.

Between his return from a brief minor league demotion in August of 2019 and hitting his sixth home run in the first 14 games of 2020, Ruiz, 26, posted an .824 OPS with 13 home runs. But outside of that 52-game stretch, his time in Baltimore has featured a .636 OPS with eight home runs in more than twice as many plate appearances.

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“I think everybody likes to show a lot more,” Ruiz said Monday. “I don’t think anybody’s really content with what they’ve shown or what they’ve done. I think everybody’s always striving for more, and I’m no different.”

Manager Brandon Hyde acknowledged Ruiz’s inconsistencies, while also noting that “nothing’s set in stone.”

“I think Rio’s had real positive moments the last couple years and had some negative moments as well,” Hyde said. “For the most part, he’s done a nice job at third base for us and is continuing to improve. He’s going to continue to get opportunity at third base, and I’m going to play him as much as I can here these next couple weeks.”

Monday was a good start. Ruiz began his day with a gift double on a ball the Pittsburgh Pirates’ defenders seemed to lose in the Florida sun. In his next at-bat, he hit a ground-rule double to left against left-hander Tyler Anderson. Given that Ruiz is a left-handed batter and Franco is a right-hander, a straight platoon could be a potential outcome of Franco joining Baltimore, but Ruiz’s career OPS against lefties is more than 100 points higher than that against righties.

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“I liked the way he played,” Hyde said. “He made a play defensively on a diving play to his left and was competitive at the plate going on left-on-left with a ground-rule double. It was a nice first day back for him.”

Ruiz was vague in discussing the illness that kept him out of the lineup since March 6.

“I had all the stuff going on, symptoms,” Ruiz said. “Luckily, we dodged a bullet there and I was able to get a back a week later. I definitely worried about it, especially being out for the whole week that I was. I didn’t know how long that we were going to be out, but luckily, we kind of did everything we needed to do and all the tests we needed to take, and I was able to get back today.”

Hyde said Ruiz will be the Orioles’ designated hitter Tuesday and could be back in the lineup again Wednesday in an effort to get Ruiz as many at-bats as possible over the next couple of weeks. Despite the time crunch of Opening Day, Ruiz said it will be “spring training as normal” for him going forward, doing the typical fielding and hitting work he would at this time of year.

His playing time going forward could be impacted by the arrival of Franco, a former top-20 prospect in baseball who has been non-tendered by the Philadelphia Phillies and Kansas City Royals respectively in the past two offseasons. He hit at least 22 home runs each year in 2016-18.

Right-hander Matt Harvey, who started Monday’s game for the Orioles, was teammates with Franco last year in Kansas City and faced him regularly in the National League East while with the New York Mets. He said Franco would “absolutely” be a good addition.

“Obviously, playing against him when he was with the Phillies and then playing with him last year, the guy’s got some serious pop and can do some damage, for sure,” Harvey said. “Having him at third, whoever it is, obviously, I’m not in charge of those decisions, but he definitely has an unbelievable arm and plays a good third base. He can swing it. From the short season last year that I spent time with him, he’s a great teammate. Whatever obviously is decided, it’ll be good to have some extra bats always.”

But Ruiz isn’t concerning himself with that possibility, instead focusing on self-improvement.

“I’ve just got to worry about the things I can control,” he said. “I don’t make decisions around here. No one, really, in the clubhouse does. As long as you play your game and worry about yourself, I think everything will be fine.”

Spring training

ORIOLES@RAYS

Tuesday, 1:05 p.m.

TV: MLB Network

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