May 16, 2014
By Sean Brennan
Special to BIGEAST.com
SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. - Coming into this season there were a few things Seton Hall baseball coach Rob Sheppard could bank on. Dominance on the mound by senior righthander Josh Prevost, some more gaudy offensive numbers from slugger Sal Annunziata and a lineup full of Pirates hitters that would rank among the BIG EAST’s best would top the list.
Check, check and check.
What he didn’t bank on was the emergence of D.J. Ruhlman.
Ruhlman spent his first two season in South Orange mired in relative obscurity. A backup infielder with a career .159 average coming into the 2014 season, Ruhlman was one of the last players you’d expect to find sitting near the top the leader board in batting average in the BIG EAST. But today that’s where you will find the junior shortstop and his .362 average entering the three-game series with St. John’s, good for third place in the conference.
It’s a journey to the top that even Rulhman himself sometimes thought he would never make.
“There were times when I doubted myself,” Ruhlman said. “There were times when I was unsure if I could do it.”
Sheppard, though, knew that given the right opportunity, Ruhlman could become a key player on the Pirates’ ship this season and that opportunity presented itself this year when former Seton Hall shortstop and All-BIG EAST First-Team pick Giuseppe Papaccio graduated and was plucked by the Chicago Cubs in the 18th round of the Major League Baseball draft last June. That opened the door for Ruhlman.
“When we recruited D.J. he was a very good athlete in high school,” Sheppard said. “He was the quarterback on the football team, he was the shortstop on his high school baseball team and he was their best pitcher, their best player. When we recruited him we knew he could play at this level. We wouldn’t have recruited him if we didn’t think he could do it.”
And Ruhlman has run with his opportunity this season.
Aside from his team-leading batting average, entering the St. John’s series Ruhlman also places second on the team in runs (41), hits (59), total bases (82) and steals (15) while ranking third in homers (3) and tied for third with 10 doubles. Not bad production from a player with 11 career hits entering the 2014 campaign.
“No spot is ever given to anybody here, you have to earn it,” said Ruhlman, who went to the same high school (Montgomery) as Prevost. “You can’t really slouch and get comfortable at a position. You have to keep pushing and getting better. But I was ready to go. I had to believe in myself that I was going to be out there this year. But at the same time I knew it wasn’t just going to be handed to me. I just had to prove myself.”
And it didn’t take long before Sheppard realized he had another gem in his stable.
“This year he knew that it was his job to win and he won it and once he got in the lineup he wasn’t coming out,” Sheppard said. “I think the surprise is how quickly he’s made an impact. He was a guy that got some time as a freshman and limited time as a sophomore and then this year he had to compete for that shortstop position and he took it over. He worked really hard and he did the most with his opportunity and obviously we’re real fortunate to have the success that he’s had.”
So how did a player with a sub-.200 batting average morph into one who is competing for the BIG EAST batting crown?
“I think it was just confidence, getting regular at bats and I also put in a lot of work with the coaches,” Ruhlman said. “It’s not something that happens overnight. You make progress but it comes down to confidence. You have to have confidence in yourself.”
But even Ruhlman admits his lofty batting average and his assault on BIG EAST pitching came as something of a surprise to him.
“I definitely did not see this coming,” Ruhlman said. “I don’t look at stats too much. I just try and hit the ball hard in every at bat. But it’s nice.”
The tough times seem like a long time ago now for Ruhlman, who has emerged from spare part status his first two seasons to a leader on the BIG EAST’s best hitting team.
“It was definitely tough going through those first two seasons,” Ruhlman said. “I was tough on myself. But at the same time it was a good learning experience for me. Playing behind Giuseppe was awesome. He was tremendous for me to learn from. I learned a ton of things from him. It was definitely a difficult process to go through but I think it was beneficial for me.”
And now a year after finishing the 2013 season with a paltry .087 batting average, Ruhlman is a force to be reckoned with in the BIG EAST.
“I always tried to believe in myself,” Ruhlman said. “It’s something I always thought could happen but it’s nice to finally see it come about.”