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Lengthy wait for chance pays off for Miami Marlins’ Justin Ruggiano

All Justin Ruggiano ever wanted was a chance to prove he could be an everyday player in the big leagues.

“I’ve always thought that if I was given a chance and an extended look, I’d eventually perform,” Ruggiano said. “Sometimes it takes a while to get comfortable and to adapt.”

It has been a wild ride — the kind of stuff worthy of a Hollywood movie script — but after two years at two junior colleges, two seasons at Texas A&M and nine years in the minors, the 30-year-old father of two and former 25th-round pick (who was signed by a Dodgers scout as a favor for $1,000) has finally found that opportunity with the Marlins.

And he has made the most of it.

Since being acquired from the Houston Astros’ Triple A team on May 26 and called up a day later, only a handful of players in the majors have produced batting averages (.390), on-base percentages (.457) or slugging percentages (.756) as good as Ruggiano, who also has six homers and 17 RBI in 82 at-bats with the Marlins.

Most of those guys — the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen, the Reds’ Joey Votto and the Twins’ Joe Mauer — were in Tuesday’s All-Star Game in Kansas City, Mo.

Ruggiano? He’s gearing up for the second half of the season for the Marlins (41-44) where he figures to get the majority of playing time in right field with All-Star slugger Giancarlo Stanton out for the next four to six weeks after arthroscopic knee surgery.

But even if Stanton hadn’t been injured, manager Ozzie Guillen said he would need to be fired if he didn’t find playing time for Ruggiano. Now with Stanton out until mid-August, Guillen won’t have to worry — even when center fielder Emilio Bonifacio returns to the team on Friday and the Marlins open up a four-game set against the first-place Washington Nationals (49-34) at Marlins Park.

“I have a renewed sense of love for the game,” said Ruggiano, who was contemplating going to Japan after this season if he didn’t get his shot with the Astros.

“I’ve definitely found a comfort zone where you can relax and just play as opposed to wondering when you may go back down again. I’m focusing on what I need to do and what the team needs me to do.”

When he was with the Rays organization from 2007 until last season, Ruggiano said he never really felt relaxed.

Spot duty with Rays

Although he hit .291 with 73 homers in six seasons in Triple A, every time he got called up to the big leagues with Tampa Bay it was mostly spot duty. Ruggiano said he felt “labeled.”

“I used to give away a lot of at-bats,” said Ruggiano, who in three big-league stints in Tampa Bay hit just .226 with 58 strikeouts in 195 at-bats.

“I think in the Rays system, strikeouts are kind of frowned upon. It was something [general manager Andrew Friedman] wanted me to focus on reducing [in 2008]. For the longest time I couldn’t figure out how. It was frustrating. I think I came up with a pretty good idea of what works for me and how to stay on the ball longer. I just try to make sure every pitch counts.”

Before he struck out three times in Sunday’s 5-4 loss to the Cardinals, Ruggiano had been doing that. During a 10-game hitting streak, he was hitting .486 with four homers, 11 RBI and three stolen bases. His 18 hits during that span were equal to what he did in his first two major-league seasons combined.

Challenge in left

Defensively, in his 20 starts for the Marlins, Ruggiano has yet to begin a game in right field. But he moved over there twice during the team’s last road trip and had two chances without error. He said playing right field isn’t as difficult for him as left.

“I’ve played mostly right field and center field in my career,” said Ruggiano, who made both of his errors in center for the Marlins. “Left field is tougher, I think, because there are a lot more hooks and tails to the ball.”

Although the opportunity to play is great, Ruggiano isn’t just happy because he’s playing and will continue to play with Stanton out.

“Pretty much all that really matters is the ‘W’ column,” Ruggiano said. “... I love being on this team. It’s a fantastic group of people.

“But we’ve got to turn things around.”

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