Shadows can be an interesting phenomenon. Sometimes they prevent potential from ever seeing the light of day or, at best, ever enjoying the spotlight. Other times they can give the kind of space to succeed that the spotlight may not have afforded. Almost every time, though, shadows don't allow for at-large public appreciation of what goes on behind them.
Thus is the life of an unsung hero, and every true championship team has one. It's the player who has great numbers, but seems to not attract attention due to similar high performance around them. It's the teammate who wears many different hats, tends to thrive when times seem darkest, but inexplicably doesn't attract attention until it's much too late.
Meet Brian Ruggiano.
The shadows seem to stalk the junior do-everything guy for the Aggies. Never mind being a frequently used utility player in 2007, or batting in the bottom third of a potent 2008 line-up...try stepping onto the A&M campus with the name "Ruggiano" on your back. As the younger brother of a current major leaguer and Aggie legend, it's easy to get labeled as "Justin's brother." Consider that every move at Olsen Field over the last 110 games has drawn, one way or another, a parallel to his bloodline and it's even easier to see how the shadows could consume the junior Ruggiano.
Except for one small detail - he's become an incredible ballplayer in his own right.
Mention the shadows to Ruggiano; the idea of being overlooked with so many gaudy stats around him in the line-up, and he quickly dismisses the notion with reference to their team-centric attitude.
"I haven't really paid attention. As long as we keep winning I think everything will fall where it's supposed to," Ruggiano said.
It's easy to lay low and work in the shadows when you're batting behind Luke Anders and Darby Brown, who've combined for 20 homers and 89 RBI thus far, but Ruggiano's season performance stands on its own as worthy of tremendous accolade. Through the first 44 games, the Junior is hitting .352 with 10 doubles, three triples, six homers, and 31 RBI. He's reaching base at a .423 clip and has crossed home plate 38 times. His conference numbers are consistent with his season totals, batting .342 and reaching base at .429 while slugging four of his six homers.
Those numbers, both in-and-of-themselves plus considering that he would be the leading everyday hitter on five Big 12 teams (Kansas, Kansas State, Texas Tech, Baylor, and Texas) make him perhaps the nation's premier seven-hole hitter. Such is an incredible luxury for Rob Childress, Matt Deggs and, truth be told, every Aggie baseball fan.
He's played in every game, starting in all but one, and has found himself playing all over the diamond. Childress calls him "the definition of a baseball player;" he began the year as the everyday catcher, and shifted to more right field duty as Kevin Gonzalez' offensive game evolved.
He's also seen duty at first base and shortstop as a "glue guy" when late inning substitutions have worked their way into games. His flair for the spectacular may even exceed his versatility, as the last four league games have seen him on the throwing end of a game-ending pickoff play and a rare RF-to-1B putout on a sure single.
Speaking of those bloodlines, the Ruggiano last name must roughly translate to "clutch," as Brian also tends to come up big when he's needed the most. The most recent example came Friday night, when Brian failed to lay down a bunt against former Aggie pitcher Scooter Hicks, but promptly launched a projected 440' homer to center field. The pitch came with two strikes; some just try to get the ball in play here, Ruggiano put it 2/3 of the way up the hitters back drop.
While that homerun counts in the total, the way he operates does not. Ruggiano almost seems more comfortable working behind in the count, and enjoys his role in the seven hole. Conventional wisdom suggests that the threat of Anders and Brown lead him to get more pitches to hit, but Ruggiano's attitude has that theory on its head, too.
"I'm there to drive in runs, get on base, and protect Luke and Darby right in front of me so they get pitches to hit," Ruggiano said.
One shadow that does seem to nag Ruggiano, if only slightly, is the lack of respect the Aggies continue to receive in some circles.
"I think the polls aren't worth much," he said. "We have to earn our respect every year, being who we are. We're not like a big name school like (some) that'll get ranked every year no matter what they do."
Coming out of the shadows is nothing new for this team's unsung hero, and Aggies everywhere are hoping he continues to bring them out of that last one. He's certainly conquered all others.
Dallas Shipp contributed to this report.
HAYES: Ruggiano is Aggies' unsung hero
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