Ben Ruta, left, and Brandon Wagner, right, talk to reporters during the Trenton Thunder’s media day press conference. Both are Mercer County natives. (John Berry/ Trentonian Photo)
TRENTON — Ben Ruta will never tire of the feeling that comes with walking into the home clubhouse at Arm & Hammer Park.
When you’re from Mercer County, it’s a rite of passage to head to the waterfront for a Thunder game during the summer. When Ruta was assigned to the Yankees’ Double-A affiliate, he couldn’t wait to get started.
"When you say it’s a homecoming, it’s a full circle moment," said Ruta, a West Windsor native who played in high school at West Windsor-Plainsboro South.
"Even last year, coming back I felt really, ‘Wow, I’m in the clubhouse now because when you’re a kid that’s what you dream of,’" he continued. "That feeling I thought it might go away, but walking in today, it’s like the same feeling every year. A lot of kids probably dream of this, but I accomplished it. It’s an awesome feeling."
He’s not alone when it comes to Mercer County talent in the clubhouse this season. Princeton native Brandon Wagner, an infielder who played his high school ball at Immaculata in Somerville, is also on the Opening Day roster.
"I remember the Derek Jeter rehab game and showing up for batting practice and seeing him walking around," Wagner said. "We have a picture somewhere in my house of that game. That comes to my mind, walking on the same field he rehabbed on and walking in the clubhouse."
Ruta, 24, and Wagner, 23, have struck up quite the friendship since both were drafted by the Yankees — Wagner in the sixth round in 2015 and Ruta in the 30th in 2016. They roomed together on the road while teammates for the bulk of the summer at High-A Tampa last season. They actually faced off once in high school during spring break trip to Florida with Wagner’s Immaculata beating Ruta’s WW-PS thanks to a Wagner home run. "I think I made two errors (at shortstop). That’s why I’m an outfielder now," Ruta recalled.
"It’s also good to have another guy to bounce ideas off of," Ruta said. "It’s like, ‘I’m going to change this a little bit, what do you think?’ We have a good relationship where we trust each other a lot with being open to changes. He’ll give me an honest answer, I’ll give him an honest answer. It’s good to have a guy like that who you’re working out with and going through the season with."
Both got a brief taste of Double-A last year. Ruta was a surprise selection to begin the season in Trenton despite not featuring at all at the High-A level. He posted a team-best .314 average in 36 games before he was unlucky to be optioned to Tampa for the remainder of the season.
In 119 total games, Ruta slashed .300/.350/.441 with eight homers, 53 RBIs and 37 stolen bases.
"It’s nice to have that experience to fall back on this year because it’s not anything new now and I know what to expect," Ruta said. "I know that I can compete at this level. I’m definitely going to look back on those experiences from last year and lean on them to try and get off to a similar start. Just going into this season with that confidence that you’ve already been at this level and had some success is something that kind of put your mind at ease."
Wagner, meanwhile, was promoted from High-A for the season’s final 37 games where he batted .262. His overall numbers across 124 games were solid as he slashed .267/.380/.461 with 21 homers and 67 RBIs.
"It’s just fine-tuning the game," Wagner said. "Realizing that going from High-A to Double-A, the pitching is a little bit better. The big thing was missing a pitch. I missed a lot of pitches early in the count and guys have better strikeout stuff. For me in the offseason, it was just fine-tuning the swing a little bit more."
The Yankees also deemed him the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year.
"It’s a great accomplishment, but I couldn’t haven’t done without the teammates, especially at High-A," Wagner said. "You go up and down that lineup, and anybody could have got that award."
The award, Wagner said, is at his home "in the kitchen," so he’ll get to see it plenty for however long he remains with the Thunder.
"I think it’s pretty easy to come home," said Wagner, who ate at PJ’s Pancake House in Princeton as soon as he got in from Florida. "Other guys are looking for houses, apartments, places to live and for us we’re able to just get back and concentrate on baseball now."
"It’s always nice to be home and be familiar with the area and just put all the unknowns at ease because we’re so familiar with it," Ruta said. "To have another guy to share it with is even better because we can talk about Princeton and got out or talk about breakfast. Where you going? I know this spot, he knows that spot."
Ultimately, the B&B Boys or "whatever you want to call it," as Ruta put it, are chasing the same goal.
"Hopefully," Ruta said, "instead of moving down, moving up this year."