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The key to Keibert Ruiz and Josh Bell’s pickoff play? It’s a secret.

Keibert Ruiz has picked off a majors-best three runners at first base. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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The play goes something like this: Keibert Ruiz and Josh Bell subtly signal each other. Whether they use their eyes, hands, feet or telepathy, they won’t tell. Once the pitch is thrown, Bell, the Washington Nationals’ first baseman, darts behind an unsuspecting runner. Ruiz, the club’s 23-year-old catcher, rises quickly and throws to Bell, leading him to the bag. Bell then finishes with a reaching tag or a lunging tag, depending on where the ball meets him and the runner’s retreat.

Three times this month, that sequence has led to an out for the Nationals. Just ask Nick Senzel, Rowdy Tellez and Rhys Hoskins. Ruiz, in turn, leads all catchers with three successful pickoffs. Sean Murphy, the Oakland Athletics’ catcher and winner of the American League’s Gold Glove in 2021, is the only other catcher with more than one.

In Cincinnati on June 5, Ruiz and Bell threw out the Reds’ Senzel to end a 5-4 win. Against the Milwaukee Brewers on June 10, they caught Tellez sleeping way off the base. And Friday, the Philadelphia Phillies’ Hoskins was their latest victim, with Manager Dave Martinez suggesting the Nationals use scouting to target certain players.

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Bell, though, described it as “mostly feel” and “what Keibert is seeing in the moment.” On all three pickoffs, Ruiz set up well outside, allowing him to fire down the first base line; there was a right-handed batter in the box, giving him a clear throwing lane; and there was a runner on second, perhaps creating a false sense of security for the man on first. The benefiting pitchers — Steve Cishek, Erick Fedde and Paolo Espino — claimed to not know it was coming, even though Fedde threw a perfectly high pitch before Ruiz nailed Tellez. But neither Bell nor Ruiz would divulge much more.

“I don’t want to give away any secrets,” Ruiz said through a big grin. “I just get JB’s attention, and he’s ready when we think we have a chance.”

“It just comes from paying attention and always watching, and it comes from lack thereof on the other end for the opponents,” Bell explained. “… I don’t want it to become a thing. I don’t want you to write about it.”

Bell was then asked why he’s able to break toward the base before the pitch crosses the plate. All three times, he vacated his position before the batter decided whether to swing. That was especially the case when they used the play on Senzel and Tellez. So what if the hitter stuck his bat out for a grounder Bell wasn’t there to field?

“That’s where we stop this conversation,” Bell replied in the Nationals’ clubhouse in early June, smiling a bit.

Fedde told reporters he didn’t know the play on Tellez was coming. That means he wouldn’t know to throw an unhittable pitch.

“He doesn’t know,” Bell said. “He doesn’t.”

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If he grooves a strike, the hitter can slap the ball where Bell just vacated.

“Uh … the pitcher doesn’t know,” Bell repeated. “It has nothing to do with him.”

Then how are you so sure you can move pre-pitch?

“No comment. This is where I walk away.”

Bell took a seat at his locker, the opposite of walking away.

“I’m putting my shoes on to actually go do something else and not talk to you about this,” Bell offered. “It’s a good question, but I’m not going to talk about it, and I don’t think that Keibert should, either.”

He didn’t.

“He didn’t?” Bell asked. “Good. Of course not. Taught him well.

“I [just] can’t talk about it. It’s too revealing. It’s like … no. I can’t! It’s just a no. A flat no. Maybe after I retire or something we can sit down, have a drink and talk about pickoff plays.”

Because Bell and Ruiz were so tight-lipped, it seemed prudent to ask Riley Adams, Ruiz’s backup, about their ability to surprise runners. After twice calling the play “really sick,” Adams foreshadowed one of its pitfalls. With a tight window to throw in and with Bell serving as a moving target, Adams noted, “Keibert has to be willing to take a risk.” In the first leg of Friday’s doubleheader against the Phillies, Adams tried to pick off a runner at first, his throw whizzed past Bell, and a run scored. On Sunday, in a 9-3 win over the Phillies, Ruiz chucked a throw by Bell and into right field, bringing a runner in from second.

In the bigger picture, Ruiz’s improving defense is a good sign for the Nationals, who view him as their catcher of the present and the future. When they traded for him last summer, he profiled as a strong hitter with work to do behind the plate. His average pop time of 2.02 seconds — how long it takes him to catch the ball and throw to a projected receiving point at the center of second base — is slightly below average, according to Statcast. It was 2.08 in 2021, among the worst for catchers with a minimum of five chances to throw out a runner.

To better control the base paths, Ruiz has shortened his throwing motion and widened his stance with runners on base. That has helped him handle 12 runners on 38 steal attempts this season. Yet it’s clear his intuition is above everything else.

“It’s a constant focus for me,” Ruiz said. “I am happy with the results so far.”

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