WASHINGTON -- As his teammates partied around him, reveling in the Dodgers' 4-3 win over the Nationals, Carlos Ruiz remained stoic, professional, hardly cracking a smile. He flinched just a bit when Yasiel Puig pulled back his shirt collar, dumping a beer inside, but continued speaking as if nothing had happened. Ruiz has been through this sort of thing before.
When the Dodgers acquired Ruiz in August in an emotional waiver deal, parting with the popular A.J. Ellis, they envisioned his veteran presence bringing balance to the roster. Perhaps their best-case scenario even included this: Ruiz knocking home the go-ahead run in the seventh inning of National League Division Series Game 5, helping to send the Dodgers to the NL Championship Series, which begins Saturday at Wrigley Field against the Cubs (8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on FS1).
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"He's a guy you want on your team, no doubt," Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw said. "He works tirelessly at what he can, and got the huge hit for us today."
The huge hit came after Joc Pederson led off the seventh inning with a home run, tying the game at 1 and chasing starting pitcher Max Scherzer from the game. Four batters later, the Dodgers had two men on base with one out and Ruiz's longtime Phillies teammate, Chase Utley, due up.
Utley had been the star of Game 4, rapping out another cold-blooded hit to force the series back to Washington. But when the Nationals called on left-lander Sammy Solís to face Utley in Game 5, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts told Ruiz to grab a bat.
Solis started the pinch-hitter off with a changeup, then threw him a fastball, a knuckle-curve and a slider to complete the kitchen sink. With no more surprises left in his arsenal, Solis turned back to the changeup, which Ruiz scorched past a diving Anthony Rendon for an RBI single into left field.
"You knew something one in a million was going to happen tonight," Scherzer said. "That was it. We weren't able to overcome that seventh inning."
Had Rendon gloved the ball, it almost certainly would have been an inning-ending double play. Not only did Ruiz hit just four balls harder than that all season, but Statcast™ also placed his average home-to-first time in the slowest one-sixth of all Major Leaguers. Ruiz beat out just one infield hit all season, and was 0-for-12 on balls fielded by the third baseman or shortstop with an exit velocity of at least 95 mph. This one was 106 mph.
"I'm happy to have that hit right there," Ruiz said.
Ruiz is happy simply to be in this situation. At age 37, he had descended into backup duty this season with the Phillies, who faded out of contention early in the summer. Unhappy with the production of their own backup catcher, Ellis, the Dodgers sprung an emotional trade, dealing one popular clubhouse presence for another. They liked Ruiz's history in October, and why not? His Game 3 homer was his fifth in 48 postseason games, the first 46 of those from 2007-11 with the Phillies.
In weeks following the deal, Ruiz worked to learn the Dodgers' pitching staff. Though he never formed a battery with Kershaw until the three-time NL Cy Young Award winner came out of the bullpen in Game 5, Ruiz spent as much time as possible catching Kershaw's side sessions. On days when Kershaw was not pitching, Ruiz picked his brain in the dugout, asking what he likes to throw in certain situations.
Then Ruiz applied everything in Game 5, moving one step closer to a career-capping ring.
"This reminds me of those days when I was there," Ruiz said of his time with the Phillies. "I'm real happy to have the opportunity to come back [to the postseason]. I feel good. I can't wait to go to Chicago and see what happens."