Gil LeBreton

Rua finds himself back in hunt for Rangers’ left-field spot

Ryan Rua got off to a slow start this spring, but he kept finding his way into the Rangers’ lineup and now looks like he can man left field.
Ryan Rua got off to a slow start this spring, but he kept finding his way into the Rangers’ lineup and now looks like he can man left field. Star-Telegram

The job was Ryan Rua’s to lose, and for awhile he was doing a conspicuously effective job of it.

As they entered spring training, the Texas Rangers had not gift-wrapped the starting left-field job for Rua, but it sure seemed to have a bow on it for him.

Outfielder after outfielder changed teams during the off-season — Matt Kemp, Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton and Wil Myers among them. But the Rangers stood pat. They liked their team, general manager Jon Daniels repeatedly said.

In Rua’s case, a 28-game September call-up in which he batted .295 had established him as the apparent incumbent.

His first 23 at-bats of the spring, however, threatened to cost him that title. Rua appeared uneasy both in the outfield and at the plate, managing only five hits and striking out eight times in the 23 at-bats.

A precocious group of job snatchers emerged, all of them seeming to show reasons why they, not Rua, should play left field.

But as Daniels reminded, Rua, 25 years old, has always hit. He hit in rookie ball just a few weeks after the Rangers drafted him in 2011 in the 17th round. At Hickory two years later, he led all the minor leagues in home runs (29) before being promoted to Frisco.

Even with Rua’s weak start this spring, therefore, manager Jeff Banister has kept putting the Ohio native’s name on the lineup card.

And Ryan Rua, whom the GM says has always hit, has again started to hit.

He had six hits in 13 at-bats over his past five games, including a run-scoring double off Jason Marquis of the Cincinnati Reds in Monday night’s second inning.

“As spring goes on, I feel myself getting more and more comfortable,” Rua said. “I’ve seen a lot of pitches, had a lot of 3-2 counts. Overall I feel like I’ve progressed well over the last few weeks.

“It’s definitely a good thing getting that confidence going.”

His early double Monday announced what Banister and Daniels already knew, that Rua was back in the left-field mix.

“He’s really shown well in the last few days,” Banister said. “He’s moving well, he’s attentive and getting more comfortable in the outfield. His at-bats have gotten more consistent — the chase has not been as prevalent. He’s starting to control the strike zone more.

“The things we’ve been looking for in Ryan, he’s really done a good job.”

The scrum in left field continues, however. Veterans Nate Schierholtz and Ryan Ludwick are in the mix, along with perennial spring training phenom Carlos Peguero. Rua and Jake Smolinski, a former second-round draft pick of the Nationals, could also be the ones fighting for the job at the end.

“Different guys have shown different things, honestly,” Daniels said Monday.

Rua thinks the extra exhibition innings that came with the squad being split for the games in San Antonio last weekend proved to be a blessing.

He knew he needed to show a spark. That might have been behind his bold decision to dive for a sinking liner last Friday — on the first batter of the game — and have it bounce past him for a double.

“Yeah,” Rua confessed. “I think everyone’s trying to prove that they’re hustling.”

Rua said he understands what the daily stakes are in camp.

“We all understand we’re competing for that spot,” he said. “I’ve been playing the game since I was 5. This is the most fun I’ve ever had. This is what you dream about, the competition, having a chance to win that spot.”

The job is no longer simply Rua’s to lose but — just in time — he’s back in the hunt.

And Ryan Rua, as the general manager will tell you, has always hit.

Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697

Twitter: @gilebreton