TRENTON – When a player is assigned to a minor league affiliate out of spring training, they often find themselves hundreds of miles removed from their comfort zone. Unfamiliarity with the area, no family, and new housing can all be a struggle. That is before stepping foot on the field, attempting to master the craft of hitting in a game that considers a thirty-percent success rate exemplary. For Thunder outfielder Ben Ruta, his unexpected push to Double-A has placed the local West Windsor-Plainsboro South product right in his backyard.
Who is Ben Ruta? The chances are that you haven’t heard much about him heading into this 2018 campaign unless you hail from Mercer County, NJ. Ruta was part of the first West Windsor Little League team to win the district in 15 years back in 2006, and he played a vital role in helping the West Windsor-Plainsboro Legion team reach its first Final Eight appearance in over a decade as a senior back in 2012. He is indeed no stranger to patrolling the outfield at his new home in ARM & HAMMER Park, a place that he had grown accustomed to playing in tournament games during his high school years.
Many players on the Thunder roster room together in apartments or temporary housing units during the season. Ruta has the luxury of being able to live with longtime family friends just twenty minutes from the ballpark in his hometown of West Windsor.
On Thunder media day prior to the start of the season, the 23-year old Ruta admitted that it felt surreal to be back in a place that he had grown so accustomed to as a young boy.
“I took a walk out there before, and saw the playground in right field,” said Ruta. “I remember going there. I remember being on the field for those camps, which we are going to run now. It is full-circle for me, which is pretty cool to be back.”
Ruta doesn’t receive much acclaim on the top-prospect rankings, and he certainly doesn’t carry the stature that comes with being an early draft selection or a “bonus baby.” But, he currently leads the Thunder in hitting, and his .357 batting average puts him just outside of the top-ten in the star-studded Eastern League.
“He is doing a real good job,” said Thunder Manager Jay Bell. “He is doing what we always talk about; he prepares well, and he comes in and expects to perform well based upon the work that he puts in. He goes out there and tries to beat his opponent every night, and it is a lot of fun to watch.”
Ruta played four seasons at Division-I Wagner College out in Staten Island, NY, just under an hour north of Trenton. It was there that he slashed .333/.409/.436 with four homers, 88 RBIs and 21 steals in 146 career games. The Yankees opted to select Ruta with their 30th-round selection in 2016.
Because the Bombers outfield depth has seemingly dwindled thin since the end of spring training, it has afforded several young prospects in the system the opportunity to showcase their ability in the upper levels. Ruta finished the 2017 season with Low-A Charleston where he slashed .273/.323/.302 in 53 games. Most projected him to continue his progression through the system with a stop in High-A Tampa this season, but Ruta ultimately skipped a significant level of development in the chain of progression, and to this point, has not appeared overmatched in his first taste of the upper levels.
“My goal was to move up,” Ruta said earlier this month. “I didn’t have a set place, and I worked hard this offseason. A spot opened up, and they chose me. I am fortunate to have this opportunity.”
Ruta has started in eight of the Thunder’s first nine games while serving as the teams primary left fielder. He has hit safely in six of those eight contests, three of them being multi-hit efforts. He is the team leader in hits (10), doubles (3) and stolen bases (2).
While the assignment to Trenton may have been a bit unexpected, Ruta says that he worked his tail off this winter to excel when opportunity knocked. “I wanted to work on my quickness,” admitted Ruta. “I have pretty good speed, but those first four steps I have pretty long legs, so I wanted to get that going. Just keep tightening up the swing and make adjustments year-to-year with what I learned in Charleston and Staten Island.”
Fans in Trenton have taken great appreciation to gritty outfielders like Jake Cave, Slade Heathcott, Ben Gamel and Zack Zehner in recent years because of their no-nonsense approach and intense focus on the intangibles. The blue-collar city very much embodies that mantra, and Ruta is cut from that very same cloth.
“I play hard, I’m going to try to fly around the field,” said Ruta. “I’m pretty quick, and I try to make a lot of contact and do the fundamentals right. I’ll be aggressive on the bases, try to steal bases, take the extra base, score runs for the team.”
In his first season as skipper in Trenton, Bell, an 18-year MLB veteran, and two-time all-star, has begun instilling an endless wealth of wisdom upon a young club that is 5-4 heading into action on Sunday. With a current roster that features ten players with zero regular season experience in Double-A prior to this season, he has provided advice and guidance to help make their transition seamless.
“He has a lot of knowledge, and he loves to share it,” said Ruta of playing for Bell. “I worked with him last spring training a lot, just talking in the outfield and in the cage and I worked with him a lot again this spring training. If you have a question, he is the type of guy that will give you a very in-depth answer. You can really get some information that will help you adjust to different levels and different situations. He is one of the great coaches that I have ever played for.”
Ruta added, “This spring training we talked a lot about building a routine in the cage and throughout the day. I told him that my routine changes every year, so I asked him, at what point in your career did you have the same routine every day? I feel like I am still developing, so my routine is changing, and he said that he didn’t really get his set routine until he played like twelve years. So, that was nice to hear; to just keep evolving and changing until you feel comfortable with where you are at, and that is the best player that you can be. He thinks that is a big key and I am really going to focus on that this year.”