RANCHO CUCAMONGA, California -- The Quakes missed out on a playoff berth by two games in the first half and busted out of the gate in the second with five straight wins. When Keibert Ruiz came aboard on July 10, they were 10-8, in a messy three-team pileup near the top, with Inland Empire and Lancaster all within a game of one another.
The Dodgers' top catching prospect (and No. 12 in the system) has been praised in nearly equal measure for his offense and defense. Poised to influence a contender, the backstop, who turns 19 on Thursday, is likely to be one of the key figures over the rest of the Cal League season.
"He brings a lot [to this team]," Rancho Cucamonga coach Rafael Ozuna said. "You see guys even [two or three years older] and they still panic behind the dish. This kid just got here, promoted from another league, and he already feels just like he's at home. You see his face and he's not even thinking about it. He just goes out and plays and has fun and enjoys what he's doing, and it's very impressive."
Playing his first full campaign, Ruiz hit .317/.372/.423 in 63 games with Class A Great Lakes while posting a .991 fielding percentage in 49 contests behind the plate. The demands of the position encourage prospect analysts to think of a catcher as either an "offensive-minded" or "defense-first" type, but Ruiz's best tools are fielding and throwing and he's raked everywhere he's gone since debuting in the Dominican Summer League in 2015 at age 16.
"I feel good on both sides -- defense and offense," he said, with Ozuna serving as interpreter. "I'm always giving my best either behind the plate or with the bat in my hands."
Growing up in Venezuela, Ruiz tried to model his game after compatriot Victor Martinez for the way the Tigers star always seems so concentrated during at-bats. Of course, Martinez twice allowed more stolen bases than any other American League catcher. Ruiz caught 16 of 74 would-be thieves in the Midwest League, but it wasn't for lack of raw ability. He is, after all, still developing and that part of his game stands to improve the most.
"I need to get better throwing to the bases, so I'm focused a lot on that right now," he said.
Otherwise, Ruiz's defensive game is ahead of the curve.
"The way that he's handled himself behind the dish is very impressive," Ozuna said, "and going through situations in the game and catching the pitchers he's never caught before and going through our bullpen -- he just caught five or six guys he never saw before and he's blocking balls and keeping balls in front of him. He knows the game, watching the runner out front and making him go back ... those things you don't really see in an 18-year-old catcher."
Ruiz is aware that he's come into a circuit that can be hard on pitchers and he's made a point to try to get to know his staff quickly and make its members' lives easier.
"[I can help pitchers with] the way that I can communicate with them and the way we can get together in meetings before the game to see how they can attack and figure hitters out," he said. "If I can get through that and learn from that and [help] get hitters out here at this level, then I can take that up to the next level."
He also knows he's the youngest player on a Cal League field on any given night -- but only barely aware.
"For me, age has nothing to do with it," he said, "because as a baseball player you're a baseball player, no matter how old you are."
The stars came out: July brought a bevy of notable Major Leaguers to the Cal League on rehab assignments. Mike Trout played four games with Inland Empire and Madison Bumgarner made a couple of starts for San Jose (with Rancho Cucamonga's DJ Peters homering off him twice in the same inning). David Dahl started a stint with Lancaster on Wednesday and went yard the next night. The 66ers also had Matt Shoemaker start on Independence Day.
Still Nuts: Many of the circuit's toughest pitchers in the first half, including Lake Elsinore trio of Cal Quantrill, Eric Lauer and Joey Lucchesi, Lancaster's Craig Schlitter and Stockton's A.J. Puk, were promoted to Double-A in a couple weeks on either side of the halfway point. But Modesto's Nick Neidert remains, at least for now. The 20-year-old Mariners prospect started the All-Star Game for the North team and, after his 18th start on July 12, was the league's active ERA leader with a 2.81 mark. He's 9-3 with 106 strikeouts over 99 1/3 innings.
Cleansed souls, and also teeth: The Storm celebrated "Faith and Family Night" on Saturday, welcoming religious organizations from across Southern California. The first 1,500 fans to the ballpark also received a free toothbrush, courtesy of a local dentist.