NEW YORK -- Fans have until the end of the month to vote in the 2011 All-Star Game MLB.com Ballot Sponsored by Sprint, and Nelson Cruz is well aware of the returns so far. During a visit to the MLB Fan Cave on Wednesday, he just smiled when reminded that teammate Josh Hamilton and Toronto slugger Jose Bautista are the only two American League positional leaders who aren't on the Yankees or Red Sox.
Fifteen homers and 34 RBIs in 51 games after what he did last fall ... and seventh place among outfielders? That's OK with him, Cruz said. He played in the last World Series and he said this Rangers team is actually better than last year's AL champs were at the same point on the schedule. And it probably doesn't hurt knowing your manager is going to choose AL reserves for the July 12 Midsummer Classic in Phoenix.
"We love the way we've been playing," Cruz said. "It's part of the game. All the fans voting for the Yankees is maintaining as usual. We keep our eye on that, but the main thing is play the game, you know. Go out there and have fun and enjoy your time.
"I think at this point, this year, we are better as a team than we were last year. The young guys, the young pitchers, the young position players, the experience we got from last year with the playoffs and World Series, I think it has helped a lot. We are in first place now and it doesn't show the way we can play. We definitely can play better baseball than we've showed, and it's just a matter of time before we put all the pieces together."
Cruz is 2 for his last 25 at-bats and hitless in six of his last seven games, the exception being the 2-for-4 game at Minnesota where he hit a signature moonshot last Thursday.
"Through the year, you're going to have highs and lows. The past week has been tough," said Cruz, whose .225 average isn't helping his All-Star vote numbers. "I've been working to get through that. Today's going to be a big day for me. I'm working with the hitting coach, he saw some problems that I've fixed mechanically, so I think it's going to be a very good day for me."
It started out in a fun way for Cruz. He arrived at the Fan Cave at noon, and got the special tour from inhabitants Mike O'Hara and Ryan Wagner, with ABC World News Tonight cameras tracking his moves. Cruz went downstairs to film segments for two upcoming MLBFanCave.com videos, helping raise the public profile of one of the game's marquee talents.
In one of the videos, Cruz will do a "bat in the cave" spoof, wielding his Louisville Slugger "boomstick," of course. In the other, he does dramatic readings along with Wagner in the spirit of Tom Cruise movies: Cruz on Cruise. The 2009 All-Star also spent about 20 minutes answering fans questions sent over Facebook and Twitter.
"It was amazing. I had a lot of fun," Cruz said. "I didn't realize it was this big and that much stuff in here. It's amazing the way the guys are working and all the effort they put into it."
Cruz said he has no plans to tweet, leaving that to previous Fan Cave visitor C.J. Wilson. But proving that they stick together, he signed his name right under that of Wilson on the wall of fame, comprised of many home plates autographed by some 40 active players, five Hall of Famers and a slew of celebs. The Rangers, Cruz said, are now accustomed to having targets on their backs as they try to repeat as AL champs.
"Everybody is trying to take our place as American League Champions," he said. "They're trying to take our spot, so everywhere we go, teams play harder. We feel that.
"We know what we can do. We can beat the good teams. Even with being in first place, we haven't played to the best of our ability."
One thing you know about Cruz: He can always hit the ball farther. Just ask teammate Elvis Andrus, who constantly jokes with him about his power.
"Elvis always asks me that: How do you hit it that far? I've seen homers that just (barely) go. Your homers, they go far,'" Cruz said. "I don't try to hit it that far. Sometimes it's good because you know if you don't hit it well, it's still going to go out."
Like the 450-footer last Thursday. Like the next one he feels is just hours away.
"The guys always make fun of me," he said. "The last home run, Elvis said, 'Did you hit that one well? Did you hit it well? I said, 'Yeah, I hit it well.' He said, 'Finally, he hit one well!"