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Breaking down Rio Ruiz’s Opening Day star-turn at second base for the Orioles and his chances at keeping the job

"I was getting ahead with the curveball, and then kind of putting some guys away with the fastball-changeup," said John Means.

BOSTON — A week ago in spring training, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde started Rio Ruiz at second base in a spring training game to give him a bit of experience there. Ruiz, the Orioles’ regular third baseman last season, had played two innings out of position at second in the past two seasons and some preparation was required in case of emergency in the coming season.

Opening Day in Boston on Friday showed that Ruiz might be spending more time at second. He started there to allow new free-agent signing Maikel Franco to play third base. Ruiz made three outstanding defensive plays at his new spot, prompting praise from Hyde and his teammates.

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Hyde said he was “outstanding.” First baseman Trey Mancini dubbed each of the plays — two catches tracking back into the outfield and a diving stop in the first base hole — ”web gems.”

Opening Day starter John Means said they were two of the toughest catches you’ll see all season, and the diving stop to begin the eighth inning was “awesome.”

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Such a stellar start to his time at second base in 2021 after having just two regular-season innings to his name there put a spotlight on Ruiz’s on a day when Means’ dominance, Trey Mancini’s return from cancer, and even rookie Ryan Mountcastle’s poise to deliver the eventual go-ahead hit meant there wasn’t much shine to go around.

Hyde, though, tried to put a stop to any projections that Ruiz might be an everyday solution at the position — a possibility that the Orioles seem to clearly be weighing.

“This is his third game playing second base,” Hyde said. “He played well today. I don’t want to add more than that. He played very, very well today. He picked us up big-time, and I’m really happy for him.”

Before the game, Hyde said the Orioles would decide who would play second base on a case-by-case basis, with Pat Valaika and Ramón Urías each options off the bench. Ruiz got the edge, he said, because right-hander Nathan Eovaldi was starting for Boston.

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A week ago, Hyde said, it wasn’t even a possibility. He noted that he has always liked Ruiz’s hands and feet at third base. Hyde also said Ruiz doesn’t let the game get fast for him at his natural position and his experience as a high school quarterback showed his athleticism.

Hyde said: “I brought Rio into my office and asked him what he thought, and his reaction to my question — I felt like from his reaction, I felt like, ‘You know what, this is something I’m going to try.’ Because he was so excited to do it.

“He’s always asked me to play short and things like that. Everybody thinks they can play shortstop that has played the infield or played shortstop in high school, so he’s always mentioned those things to me, and when I asked him if he would, how he felt about it, he was super excited to get out on the field the next day and go to work with [third base coach Tony Mansolino] on it. It put my mind at ease.”

Ruiz said he didn’t say anything special that day.

“It was just a quick yes,” Ruiz said. “I don’t think I let him finish his question. I was more than happy to do it and more than happy to get to work and to add it to my career.”

That Ruiz had only a handful of chances and so many were difficult obscured the fact that Hyde’s expectation for him there was to simply make the routine play on balls he could get to. It’s a low bar, but the value for the Orioles when Ruiz does play second base is that at least for now, it allows them to put out their best lineup.

Urías could still have some untapped offensive potential, and Valaika hit well in stretches in 2020. Friday showed that having Mountcastle as the designated hitter with Anthony Santander and Austin Hays in the corner outfield spots and Franco at third base with Ruiz at second base gives the Orioles not only some balance against right-handed pitching but their best collection of hitters on the field.

Against left-handers, that calculus could change with a right-handed bat like Urías or Valaika possibly an option on those days. That could push Ruiz to the bench, though it wouldn’t be permanently in those games.

Friday’s win showed the Orioles’ ideal defensive infield features Ruiz at third base and Urías at second base as the rookie Urías came in as a defensive replacement in the ninth inning. When the Orioles are protecting a lead, Ruiz could easily come off the bench on those days and give them their best infield.

Whether they can count on him to be part of an infield that’s consistently strong on an everyday basis can’t be gleaned in one day, or in a week of spring training games and workouts.

There’s clearly a different bar for him at the position than there was for Yolmer Sánchez, who entered spring training as the presumptive everyday second baseman and had a Gold Glove award on his resume.

Ruiz won’t be held to that standard when he goes out to his new position. As long as he can hold his own, though, he might get a second lease on his time in Baltimore that last month’s spring addition of Franco made feel unlikely.

He knows what it will take to make the new position stick, too. Ruiz credited Mansolino and new shortstop Freddy Galvis with helping speed up his transition.

“Just continue working,” Ruiz said. “I’m still going to work at third base as well because you saw I was there in the late innings. But definitely more work. More work, more work, more work. That’s all you can do, and once the game comes, hopefully everything comes a little naturally.”

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