Cruz stands up to postseason glare
Rangers hope for more fireworks in Game 2 of ALDS
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rangers know how good Nelson Cruz is. Under the glare of the postseason spotlight, they figure the world is about to catch on to their other gifted outfielder -- the one who plays right, or left, alongside Josh Hamilton.
"I think he's just as much of a five-tool player as anyone else in the game," Rangers reliever Darren O'Day said of Cruz. "He's got all the skills to be an All-Star for 10 years."
Cruz, who unloaded a tremendous home run against David Price in Wednesday's 5-1 decision over the Rays at Tropicana Field, will be looking for an encore on Thursday when right-hander James Shields tries to silence Texas in a pivotal Game 2 against another Rangers southpaw, C.J. Wilson. Teams losing the opener at home are 7-20 in LDS play since 1995.
"We've been through some tough moments in the past during the course of this season," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "That's just one game. [If we] come out and play our game today, we'll be just fine."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Playing with fire
Texas starter C.J. Wilson was the second-toughest pitcher to hit in the AL (.217), trailing
only Felix Hernandez (.212). Wilson also led the AL in walks with 93, and that could be deadly against the
runnin' Rays, who led the Majors in steals. He beat the Rays in Texas on June 4, leaving with a five-run lead
after five innings having walked four men and given up six hits and three earned runs. Wilson strangled
left-handed hitters, holding them to .176 slugging and .224 on-base marks. Carl Crawford (2-12), Evan Longoria
(0-6) and B.J. Upton (0-5) have struggled against Wilson, Crawford producing a homer and four RBIs.
The Vlad Factor
On the surface, the Rangers look like a favorable matchup for James Shields. He's 3-2 with a
4.07 ERA in six career starts with an impressive 1.10 WHIP, walking only six while striking out 37 in 42
innings. But here's the rub: Vladimir Guerrero has faced him only seven times wearing a Rangers uniform. With
the Angels, Guerrero pounded Shields. The big bopper is a .394 career hitter with a .636 slugging mark against
Shields in 33 career at-bats, with two homers and six RBIs.
Over the course of the long season, the two best hitters in the AL with runners in scoring
position were Josh Hamilton (.369) and Carl Crawford (.359). That's no big surprise, given that they're two of
the game's best in any situation. But fourth on the list was Texas shortstop Elvis Andrus, who hit .347 in
those clutch situations -- 82 points higher than his season average. Late in games, this is something for the
Rays to keep in mind. Elvis rarely leaves the building, but he can shoot balls in gaps and run like the wind --
and he likes the pressure.
Two of the six most selective hitters in the AL, judging by free passes accepted, are in Joe
Maddon's Tampa Bay lineup. Ben Zobrist walked 92 times, fourth in the league, and Carlos Pena drew 87 bases on
balls, tying Bobby Abreu for sixth. While they batted only .246 against southpaws, the Rays had a .331 on-base
percentage, and their .406 slugging mark was better than the .397 against righties.
The Rangers' home/road splits were extraordinary this season. They batted .288 at Rangers
Ballpark with 93 homers and 430 runs scored compared to .265, 69 homers, 357 runs on the road. The Rays' splits
were the reverse. They hit .243 at home with 78 homers, 351 runs; on the road, the numbers were .251, 82, 451.
The Rays averaged 5.6 runs per game on the road, 4.3 at home. The Rangers: 4.4 on the road, 5.3 at home.
One thing the Rays will try to do is take advantage of early opportunities, something that escaped them against Cliff Lee when he worked through a bases-loaded, one-out situation in the first inning of Game 1.
"We know what we're capable of," said the Rays' Ben Zobrist, who homered and doubled in Game 1 and also lined out. "We don't panic in a situation like this. It's important for the team not to panic and to be confident that you're going to go out there and win. I can remember a lot of series this year where we lost the first game and ended up winning the series." While Wilson hopes to emulate role model Cliff Lee and deliver a matching gem, Cruz hopes to make his boyhood hero -- Vladimir Guerrero -- beam with another productive performance. Cruz has faced Shields just three times in his career, with a single and an RBI.
"I'm just happy to be here in this lineup, with Vladdy and Hamilton," Cruz said. "They're from another planet. They're superstars. I'm just trying to help them out.
"Vladdy was my guy when I was starting playing baseball in the Dominican [Republic]. It's great to have him as a teammate now. He's the best guy; he'll give you anything. He's humble, always smiling. Everybody loves Vladdy."
Cruz turned 30 in July, so he's no kid. But it wasn't until 2009 that he began to come into focus as a force, making the American League All-Star team for the first time.
"I got started late with baseball, when I was 16," Cruz said. "I was a basketball player first. I guess that's why I'm a late bloomer. It took me a while. I signed [with the Mets] when I was 17 [in 1998]. I was kind of skinny then."
The Mets sent Cruz to Oakland in 2000 for a shortstop named Jorge Velandia, and the A's shipped Cruz to the Brewers four years later for another infielder, Keith Ginter. On July 28, 2006, Cruz became a Ranger along with Carlos Lee in exchange for four players.
Cruz took flight in '09 with 33 homers and 76 RBIs in 128 games. The only thing that kept him from putting together mammoth numbers this season was a series of hamstring injuries costing him 51 games in three separate DL stints.
Batting .318 in 108 games, Cruz produced 22 homers and 78 RBIs with a .576 slugging percentage. Hamilton, at .633, led the Majors. Cruz would have been fifth in the AL with enough at-bats to qualify.
"Project out his numbers over a full season," O'Day said, "and he's right there with anybody."
Cruz, quiet and modest like his role model, Guerrero, gave Lee some comfort with his third-inning bomb, estimated at 438 feet, on a 3-0 count against Price. It reached the top of the restaurant in center field.
"I was hoping to get the green light -- and I was looking for a pitch right down the middle," Cruz said. "That's what I got, and I hit it pretty solid."
"That," Rangers reliever Darren Oliver said, eyes wide, "was a bomb. I'm telling you, Cruz is like Hamilton. He can do everything. He can fly, he's got a cannon, he can hit. This guy is a special talent."
Cruz said he feels fortunate to hit behind Hamilton and Guerrero, who take totally different approaches to the plate.
"Hamilton is very patient," Cruz said. "Vlad is very, very aggressive. I try to be somewhere between them."
Texas manager Ron Washington certainly has no complaints with Cruz's approach -- or the results.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.