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Keibert Ruiz adjusts to the grind of the season and demands of a demanding position

Nationals catcher Keibert Ruiz is playing his first full MLB season. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The life of a big league catcher can be a grueling one, both mentally and physically. And recently, Keibert Ruiz, the rookie catcher for the Washington Nationals, has taken some shots that have been a reminder of how brutal it can be.

Ruiz, 24, was hit twice in the face mask with foul balls Monday and both times was tended to by Nationals Manager Dave Martinez, with head trainer Paul Lessard by his side. He was also hit by a pitch in that game, so Martinez opted not to start him the next day. But Ruiz pinch-hit in the seventh inning Tuesday and remained in the game, which went to extra innings. Then he started Wednesday’s game against the Chicago Cubs, the team’s 80th loss of the season.

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“I just try to do everything I can possible off the field physically to maintain my energy,” said Ruiz, who joked that he takes Tylenol and Advil for the postgame headaches so he can get ready for the next day. “My strength with lifting and the weights in the gym just so that it doesn’t take a toll on me during the season.”

The Nationals face the Padres in San Diego on Thursday night.

Ruiz’s first full season in the big leagues has been a bumpy one as he has worked through growing pains both at the plate and behind it. Martinez said this week that the team wants him to play as much as possible to get live game reps and learn how to grind through a 162-game season after he caught 101 games across two organizations and two levels a year ago.

Entering Thursday, Ruiz has started 83 games behind the plate this season, trailing only three catchers, including the Philadelphia Phillies’ J.T. Realmuto, who tops the list with 94 starts. Ruiz has caught 743⅓ innings, which ranks third.

The hands-on experience that Ruiz is getting behind the plate has resulted in success — he has thrown out 19 runners this season, which ranks second behind only Realmuto. Martinez added that he has seen better game-calling from Ruiz as the season has progressed.

Still, Martinez has expressed concern about his catcher’s health in recent days.

“He’s been hit a lot this year, and it’s kind of scaring me a little bit,” Martinez said after Monday’s game. “We’re going to have to monitor him and keep an eye on him. . . . Those foul tips are really hard.”

Martinez said Ruiz has a tendency to stay low and underneath hitters on swings, a technique that leads to a lot of caught foul tips. The downside is that it leaves Ruiz vulnerable to taking an excess of balls of his body.

“Those are the bad things about being a catcher,” Washington’s backup, Tres Barrera, said about getting hit. “People say, ‘Why did you choose to be a catcher?’ I didn’t choose to be a catcher. [Being a catcher] kind of chose me. . . . But, yeah, man, he’s gotten beat up, but he’s doing a great job.”

Barrera is one of the few people in the clubhouse who can relate to Ruiz’s experiences. He has been sitting in on daily meetings with Ruiz since July and has filled in as his backup, primarily catching on day games that follow night games to give Ruiz a breather.

Barrera noted that Ruiz has to deal with not just the physical demands of the game but also the mental ones. If a catcher isn’t performing well at the plate, Barrera said, sometimes that can carry over to defense if he doesn’t compartmentalize.

That, coupled with the physical hits, can be taxing for a catcher in a long season. But Barrera has been impressed with how Ruiz has handled it all.

“Obviously, he’s gone through some ups and downs, but that was all expected,” Barrera said. “It just shows his maturity level, going in there attacking everyday like it’s a new day, and I think he’s done a good job.”

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