The Phillies know what they have in veteran players like Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon, but inexperienced players like Darin Ruf, Cody Asche, Justin De Fratus and Jake Diekman have the opportunity to cement themselves into the 2014 Opening Day roster with a strong finish.
Ruf and Asche made another case for themselves in Friday night's 4-3 victory over the D-backs at Citizens Bank Park. Ruf homered and Asche ignited a ninth-inning rally and scored the winning run to help the Phillies win five of their last six games. Four of those wins are walk-off victories, including each one in a three-game winning streak.
The rookies have had a knack for coming up with a big hit, RBI or run in their team's victories. Ruf has played in 16 victories since he got called up from Triple-A Lehigh Valley in early July. He is hitting .298 (17-for-57) with four doubles, five home runs, nine RBIs and a 1.026 OPS in those games. Asche is hitting .379 (11-for-29) with four doubles, two homers, eight RBIs and a 1.124 OPS in nine victories.
"For this being their first year, those are situations that sometimes take a number of games to feel comfortable and relax and do the job," Sandberg said. "It speaks for their character and where they're at. It's very impressive."
"I think every hitter wants to be in that situation," Ruf said. "When you're in them you have to learn from them, no matter what the outcome is. If it's a good one or a bad one, you have to learn from it. And that's how you ultimately get better in those situations, too."
Ruf ripped a home run to left-center field in the second inning to hand the Phillies a 1-0 lead. It was his eighth homer in August, which tied him for most in the big leagues.
Ruf has 10 home runs in 138 at-bats this season, which is one homer every 13.8 at-bats. Pittsburgh's Pedro Alvarez leads the National League among qualifying hitters, averaging one homer every 14.16 at-bats. If Ruf had enough plate appearances to qualify, he would rank 10th out of 167 Phillies hitters since the beginning of the 1980 season in home run frequency.
Of course, this does not mean he is destined for success, although his progress certainly is encouraging. John Mayberry Jr. averaged one homer every 13.5 at-bats the final three months of the 2011 season to convince the Phillies he had earned the chance to be the everyday left fielder. But once handed that opportunity in 2012, his average plummeted to one homer every 31.5 at-bats.
Ruf might be the most important player to watch the final 34 games of the season. A left-handed-heavy lineup that is expected to include Ryan Howard, Utley, Domonic Brown, Ben Revere and Asche needs a good right-handed bat with pop.
It could be Ruf.
The D-backs scored three runs in the fourth inning to take a 3-1 lead. The inning was set up when Brown lost a ball in the twilight. Cole Hamels recovered to allow three runs in seven innings. But the Phillies scored two runs in the sixth to tie the game when Ruiz hit a one-out double to left field to score Kevin Frandsen and Utley.
Asche laced a pinch-hit single to right field to start the ninth inning. He advanced to third on a hit-and-run single to right from Rollins.
"Jimmy did a great job, on top of the ball, hitting something hard," Asche said. "After that, I just did the easy part and ran."
Asche, like Ruf, seems to enjoy being up in those big situations.
"I think it's human nature to [enjoy it]," he said. "Especially when you're here. You want to be one of those guys that's in there helping the team win. When your name is in the lineup you've got to find a way somehow to do something to help the team win."
The D-backs intentionally walked Michael Young to load the bases, and two batters later Utley walked to score Asche to win it.
"I'm really, really impressed with the guys they've brought up," Hamels said. "We had a few years where we didn't have guys coming up that could make an impact. I feel like the guys, especially a couple of the guys in the bullpen and a couple of the position players, they have the potential to be big impact players and obviously make a big name for themselves and be a part of a new nucleus. You don't want to put all the pressure in the world on them, but they're definitely delivering."