CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Darin Ruf smiled brightly as he touched home plate Friday afternoon at Bright House Field.
He had just smashed a baseball onto the thatched roof of the mini-tiki bar in left field for a solo home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to give the Phillies a 7-6 victory over the Braves. The ball bounced off the roof, out of the ballpark and onto the MLB Network satellite truck below.
It was a nice moment for Ruf, who had struggled early this spring as he competed for a job in the Phillies outfield. But before Ruf had a chance to enjoy the moment, the Phillies called him into manager Charlie Manuel's office and optioned him to Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
"I'll be pulling for him," Manuel said. "I think there's a good chance we'll see him here [this season]. It depends on how our offense goes. He's capable of being a really good hitter."
Ruf hit .246 (14-for-57) with six doubles, two home runs and nine RBIs in 19 Grapefruit League games. But after hitting .143 (3-for-21) in his first eight games, he hit .306 (11-for-36) in his last 11. The Phillies believe Ruf will hit. That is not the issue. They made this move because he needs to improve defensively in left field.
Ruf struggled in left. There was no getting around that. In fact, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said Ruf would be in camp if he had looked better defensively.
"Oh yeah," Amaro said. "We think he's a good hitter. He can hit. ... I think he's going to be able to be adequate at some point in left field. We've only given him, what, two months of professional time? That is why experience means something.
"To be out there and playing, playing at a very high level where the ball comes off the bat differently in the Major Leagues, unlike any other place, and in the upper levels of the Minor Leagues. He's only played one month of professional baseball in left field. In our situation, where defense is very important to us, it's tough to put him in a situation to let him struggle through that. He needs reps. He's got to play."
Said Ruf: "It's a little disappointing. I was telling them in there that I thought I was further along than I was in the outfield, just based on the end of last year and making the plays I did. I mean, very routine plays, so those are the ones I'm expected to make. And in Winter Ball as well. Just thinking I was further along than I actually am. It was a good eye-opening thing to know I need to keep working and things like that.
"They're not disappointed in anything I've done so far. It's just that I need to get out there and play left field on a daily basis."
Ruf's departure seems to put Rule 5 Draft pick Ender Inciarte in a strong position to make the team as a fifth outfielder, although Amaro stressed nothing had been finalized and they could make a trade or sign somebody before Opening Day. But the Phillies also reassigned Jermaine Mitchell to Minor League camp, leaving them with just five healthy outfielders in camp: Ben Revere, Domonic Brown, John Mayberry Jr., Laynce Nix and Inciarte.
Infielder Pete Orr has been seeing some time in the outfield, so he remains an option. Amaro said it was unlikely that the Phillies would carry three utility infielders on the roster at the beginning of the season, which would include Freddy Galvis, Kevin Frandsen and Yuniesky Betancourt.
Amaro said Ruf would play a little first base in Triple-A as well. Ruf is a natural first baseman, and they would like to keep him sharp in the event something happens to Ryan Howard. Ruf could play five days a week in left field and one or two days at first base.
"One of the things they stressed was I can't put away my first baseman's glove, either," Ruf said. "Going down there, I'll get the opportunity to play left field, stay close to first base, taking ground balls, things like that, where over the last month I don't think I've taken a ground ball, solely being focused on improving in left field. Hopefully that will give me that opportunity as well."
But most important Ruf will get a chance to just relax and play in Triple-A, where there will be less scrutiny on every play he makes.
"Yeah, in Minor League camp I can get away with having a few tough games hitting," Ruf said. "Up here you really can't. You are out there fighting for a job every day, and whether that was added pressure I put upon myself or something like that, I feel like over the past couple games I've gone out there and played and not really worried about the result, I guess.
"It's a little different. Every game is on TV here, where down in Minor League camp you're doing things typically not seen on the baseball field. If you're keeping score that's great. You have no idea what the score is half the time."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.