Flat path helped put Rangers' Cruz on fast path to stardom
His 100-mile-per-hour offering had not just been hit for a home run but pulled down the leftfield line, and Tigers ace Justin Verlander could only laugh. He admitted later that he had "out-thunk" himself by throwing another fastball to Rangers rightfielder Nelson Cruz, rather than pitch to his weakness with another breaking ball, but recently there have been few pitches the 31-year-old Dominican hasn't driven with authority.
That home run in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series was Cruz's fifth of the ALCS, with a postseason-series record sixth on its way in Game 6, leading the Rangers to the World Series and himself to the ALCS MVP award. Cruz finished with eight hits against Detroit, all for extra bases (two doubles and those six home runs), good for a 1.273 slugging percentage that is the highest ever in an LCS in the best-of-seven era, which started in 1985.
Cruz, whom Detroit catcher Alex Avila called a "man-child," is the Rangers' No. 7-hitting sensation -- no, really, he bats seventh -- whose major league success was born in the visiting batting cage at Triple-A Albuquerque's Isotope Park, a makeshift laboratory where Rangers coaches learned to unleash Cruz's late-arriving nuclear power.
"It was a reminder that not only do they come in all shapes and sizes," Texas general manager Jon Daniels said, "but, if they come at all, they come at their own pace too."
The career path of the 6'2", 240-pound Cruz -- from 2008 onward -- suggests a smooth, swift, upward trajectory. In '08 he was named the MVP of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. In 2009 he hit 33 home runs and was named a major league All-Star. In 2010 he hit five extra-inning home runs and had a career-high .950 OPS. And now in 2011 he's become a postseason hero by leading the Rangers to their second straight Fall Classic; two of his homers were in extra innings and one was the first official walk-off grand slam in postseason history.
Before that, however, Cruz was no sure thing. He didn't lead lists of top prospects. He was traded three times for such luminaries as Keith Ginter and Jorge Velandia. He was exposed on waivers and went unclaimed. He seemed destined to be a so-called "Quadruple-A" player -- too good for the minors, not good enough for the majors.
Cruz first started bashing late-inning, playoff-winning homers in 2005, the same year the Brewers named him their Minor-League Player of the Year. He finished the season in Triple-A Nashville and hit a ninth-inning walk-off homer to beat Oklahoma (then the Rangers' affiliate) in the first round of the playoffs. In the league finals he hit three homers in a three-game sweep of Tacoma, the final blast coming in the 13th inning of the deciding game.
"He was unbelievable," said Bobby Jones, the Rangers' longtime Triple-A manager. "He was one of the best players in the PCL. Watching him play on the other side, it was like, 'Why isn't this guy in the big leagues?'"
The Rangers' scouts were really high on Cruz, so when the club wanted to make a mid-summer trade in July 2006 to bolster their offense -- the Rangers were a .500 team but only 1 ½ games out of first place in the AL West -- they sought Cruz from the Brewers in addition to the more coveted bat of Carlos Lee, who would be a three-month rental before making an expected departure in free agency. Lee was there to kickstart the offense; Cruz was insurance of sorts for the Rangers, who were trading two major leaguers in Francisco Cordero and Kevin Mench and an up-and-comer in Laynce Nix.
"I don't know if it was hedging our bet, necessarily," Daniels said, "but it was like, 'We want to make a push, but we weren't 100 percent convinced we were all the way there.'"
Texas promoted Cruz to the majors after the trade, but he hit just .223 with six home runs in 41 games; the Rangers finished 80-82 and in third place. His 2007 season was split between the minors and majors, but in the majors he batted just .235 with a .287 on-base percentage and nine homers in 96 games.
Pitchers exposed holes in his swings. Cruz was stricken with the power-hitter's curse of the strikeout. His swing was too much of an uppercut. Too many good pitches were missed.
Cruz didn't make the Rangers' Opening Day roster out of spring training in 2008 and, since he was out of options, the club exposed him to waivers before outrighting him back to Triple-A. None of the other 29 clubs took a chance on him.
"I was [surprised]," Scott Servais, Texas' director of player development, said. "But once you've seen players fail at the major league level, it's hard to get that of your mind. To claim a guy off waivers, it obviously doesn't cost a lot as an investment, but the scouts have to stick their neck out on the line and say, 'Hey, this is a guy that we should take a run at.'"
The Rangers' faith in Cruz had wavered enough that they exposed him to waivers, but they didn't flatly give up trying to help him. Servais flew to Albuquerque to join Oklahoma on the road and work with Cruz. Servais and Triple-A hitting coach Mike Boulanger retreated to the batting cage and sought to overhaul the player's swing.
The most visible change was that they opened Cruz's stance, but the more fundamental change was to level his swing so that he'd make more contact. Servais, a catcher who played 11 years in the majors with four teams, used comparisons of Andres Galarraga and Luis Gonzalez as recent veterans who had opened their stances with great success.
"He really had nothing to lose," Servais said. "It did help him see the ball better, but the biggest thing we were trying to do was flatten out his swing path. Nelson always had power, but there was a lot of swing and miss."
The results were obvious, as Cruz pounded the ball in a way that stood out even in a league known for inflating offensive statistics. He batted .342 with a .429 OBP, .695 slugging, 37 home runs, 99 RBIs and 93 runs in just 103 games, numbers that felt even bigger.
"It was almost like he was good for four runs a game," Jones said. "He was going to drive in two and he was going to score two. Steal bases, hit home runs, whatever. That was pretty much a given that, when he played, it was a guaranteed four runs."
Cruz continued that pace in his 31-game late-summer call-up to the big leagues (.330/.421/.609 with seven homers) and in 2009 he hit 33 homers for Texas with 20 steals. Injuries have curtailed his playing time -- he has never played 130 games in a major league season -- but he's been exceedingly productive when he's on the field.
"Nellie's physical ability was obvious," Daniels said, "but what spoke more to his future is that, a lot of guys when they've cleared waivers and have to go back to Triple-A again, they probably would have [been stubborn]. He wanted somebody to help him."
Despite Cruz's power surge, Rangers manager Ron Washington has been reticent to move him higher in the lineup, a statement on how deep their batting order is. Because Cruz is under team control through the 2013 season, he'll remain a fixture of that lineup for a few more years.
"It took him a while to figure out what adjustments he had to make," Washington said, "but once he learned to make them up here at the major league level, with each day that comes and goes, he's getting better. When a baseball player learns to stay within himself, you can say he has arrived. We can say that Cruz has arrived."