BALTIMORE — Nelson Cruz found vindication, happiness and many new friends as a member of the Baltimore Orioles.
To show his appreciation, the free-swinging slugger served as the driving force in the team’s most successful season in 17 years.
Cruz led the majors with 40 home runs and finished third with 108 RBIs to help Baltimore win the AL East for the first time since 1997. As an encore, he homered twice in the Orioles’ three-game sweep of Detroit in the Division Series, including the key drive in a 2-1 victory Sunday that thrust Baltimore into the AL Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals.
“There have been parts of the year when he’s carried us,” shortstop J.J. Hardy said. “We wouldn’t be where we are without him.”
After playing much of the year without catcher Matt Wieters and third baseman Manny Machado, both sidelined by season-ending injuries, Baltimore lost first baseman Chris Davis to a 25-game suspension in September for using the amphetamine Adderall without a prescription.
All the while, Cruz remained the big bat in the lineup, setting career highs in homers, RBIs, runs (87), hits (166), walks (55) and total bases (322).
“I have to thank my teammates. Without them it would be impossible,” Cruz said.
He could boast about his season, but why?
“Nelson is not a guy that ever is tooting his own horn,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said.
“It’s pretty hard for other people not to toot it for him and I think that’s what you respect about him. He realizes how much everybody has to have a contribution.”
Cruz, 34, does his part with a potent bat and an engaging smile.
“He had an amazing season,” first baseman Steve Pearce said. “Great teammate. Great guy. It’s an honor to be on the same team as him.”
Coming off a 2013 season with Texas in which he served a 50-game suspension for violating Major league Baseball’s drug agreement in relation to the Biogenesis investigation, Cruz spurned a $14.1 million qualifying offer from the Rangers. He ended up with an $8 million, one-year deal with Baltimore, earned another $750,000 in roster bonuses and got $50,000 for making the AL All-Star team.
The rapport between Cruz and his teammates began immediately, when eight Orioles attended the news conference in late February to announce his arrival.
Baltimore fans also were quick to embrace the fallen star. On opening day, they yelled “Cruuuuuz!” during his introduction. The chant continued into October.
“I love it here. I love the fans, I love my teammates,” Cruz said in late September after being voted Most Valuable Oriole by the media.
Soon after his arrival, Cruz formed a bond with Showalter, who managed the slugger in Texas from 2006-08.
“He didn’t have a chip on his shoulder, but he just came in with something to prove about some of the questions people had about him about why they didn’t commit to him more long term,” Showalter said.
One of Cruz’s shortcomings in the past was his inability to avoid injury. As a preventive measure, Showalter had Cruz split time between left field and designated hitter. Cruz ended up playing in 159 games, which contributed heavily to his career-high numbers.
“I haven’t been able to play that many games before,” he said, “but I knew I was capable of doing something like this.”
Cruz is quite competent in the outfield, too, although some Texas fans still believe he could have caught a drive to right by David Freese in the bottom of the ninth in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series against St. Louis. The liner went for a tying triple, and the Cardinals won in extra innings before taking Game 7.
Showalter, however, has no problem putting Cruz in the field.
“I tell you what, he’s played a pretty good outfield,” the manager said.
Said Cruz: “I’d love to play more in the outfield. I think DH is boring, but I’ll do whatever it takes to help the team.”
The goal is to win Baltimore’s first championship since 1983, and Cruz will do whatever it takes.
“I think the most important thing is where we are right now,” he said. “That’s the most important thing I can take from the season and what we have to accomplish.”
Regardless of how far the Orioles go, Cruz is poised to receive a long-term contract that will make his current deal appear modest.
“He’s put himself in a good position in his career,” Showalter said. “He doesn’t like talking about that stuff right now, He’s got his priorities and his tunnel vision going for the rest of the year. Keep in mind this guy has come very close to winning a couple of world championships. He wants to close the deal here.”
So, could this be just a one-year love affair between a slugger and a city?
“Hopefully not,” Cruz said. “Hopefully I stay here, we work something out. We have an important thing going on in front of us, so after the season is over we’ll figure it out.”