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Darin Ruf more relaxed this spring and it shows
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PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – One of the first things you notice about Darin Ruf this spring is how relaxed he looks.

Last spring training, he was a man under a microscope, a rookie trying to win a job, learn to play the outfield, and live up to the huge numbers he’d put up at Double A the previous season. He ended up pressing and that hurt his performance in the outfield and at the plate.

This spring, Ruf, 27, has been able to rid himself of the tightness that gripped him a year ago. He is having good at-bats. He is confident. He is not forcing things.

The mindset is a result of a half season in the majors last year, as well as last spring’s trip to big-league camp, the one that ended with his being reassigned to the minor leagues.

“I kind of know what to expect more now,” Ruf said. “I’m not learning to play a whole new position or two. I’m just trying to improve at those positions. So I’m definitely more relaxed.”

It is showing in Ruf’s at-bats. He is not trying to prove his worth by hitting five-run home runs every time up. He is letting the game come to him. In the first inning of Monday’s game against Tampa Bay, he worked a two-out walk against lefty Matt Moore to load the bases for John Mayberry Jr., who tapped out to third to end the threat.

Ruf flied out and struck out in his next two at-bats and finished his day with a line drive base hit to right-center on a 1-2 slider from Merrill Kelly in the eighth inning . The at-bat impressed manager Ryne Sandberg.

“That was a nice piece of hitting,” Sandberg said. “He stayed with it nicely and took it to right field.”

Ruf, hitting .308, started at first base and also made a nice play in the field as he tried to cut down a run in the seventh inning. The play didn’t end well as the runner scored around catcher Lou Marson, but it wasn’t Ruf’s fault.

“He made a great play,” Sandberg said of Ruf.

Mayberry, who was the DH, and Ruf are two of a handful of players vying for what appears to be three openings on the bench. Barring a health issue, infielder Freddy Galvis and backup catcher Wil Nieves are locks. That leaves Ruf, Mayberry, Kevin Frandsen and Bobby Abreu competing for three jobs. Non-roster outfielders Tony Gwynn Jr. and Clete Thomas and non-roster infielders Reid Brignac and Ronny Cedeno are also in the mix.

If Abreu, who turns 40 next week, proves he can still have good at-bats and play a passable defense in right field, he could end up on the roster. Frandsen, an infielder/pinch-hitter, and Mayberry, an outfielder/first baseman, are both on guaranteed contracts, which could help their causes in making the club. Mayberry’s ability to back up in center field also helps. Ruf has minor-league options remaining so sending him to Triple A could be an easy solution – unless he plays his way onto the team.

“There’s competition for jobs, for sure,” Ruf said. “It’s exciting. But it’s still early in camp. Jobs aren’t won in the first week. We have another month to go before decisions are made. There’s a lot that can happen.”

True enough. Injuries can happen. Trades can happen. The Phillies have dangled Mayberry for months. Frandsen or even Ruf himself could be had in a deal. And there’s also the possibility that the Phillies could carry one less reliever and one extra bench man for the first week of the season.

For a player, it’s better to just play and let others think about this stuff. That’s Ruf’s approach to this spring.

Ruf came to the majors early last July when Ryan Howard went down with a knee injury. He led the club with 12 homers after the All-Star break, but struck out 91 times in 251 at-bats.

Ruf spent the winter doing agility training and reported to camp early. Though he has played mostly first base when Howard has gotten time off this spring, Ruf believes he can help in the outfield when called upon.

“I wouldn’t call myself a utility player, but if they put me at first, left or right, I feel like I can hold my own,” he said.