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Hot-hitting Cruz making most of fresh start

After PED suspension in 2013, slugger a welcome addition in Baltimore

ST PETERSBURG -- Nelson Cruz is a hard guy to track down.

In a baseball clubhouse designed with hours of free time, the veteran is rarely playing cards or hanging out by his locker. Instead, Cruz is in the weight room, hitting in the cages, off the tees and following a diligent routine he's had since the Minor Leagues. It has paid off over a decade of regular-season Major League success, an impressive playoff resume and a pair of All-Star appearances.

And while those accolades have been nice, what Cruz really craves now, what drives his meticulous approach, is distance. You see, every time the slugger homers -- and there already have been quite a few -- he is moving forward, propelling the Orioles (15-14) and creating more of a gap between being an impressive late-spring signing and a forgettable 2013.

"Everywhere I went last year, it was a mess," said Cruz, who served a 50-game suspension handed down in August for performance-enhancing drug use, and then fired his agent to further remove himself from the Biogenesis scandal.

"No doubt [it was the hardest year of my life]. Not just for me, for my family. I think my family had it worse than anything else. People asked me last year how I was able to play that well, how I was able to deal with the pressure of having all that stuff out there. I said it was easy because I had God, I had my family with me. But the hard part was for my family, I know they got it pretty bad. For me, I go out there and control what I can and do my job on the field. For my family, it's hard, because they can't do anything about it but watch and see and listen."

There was plenty to take in, as Cruz made headlines and the embattled slugger issued an apologetic statement in which he claimed that a gastrointestinal infection, helicobacter pylori, led him to seek out the assistance of PEDs prior to the 2012 season. He returned to the Rangers at the end of September last season and still managed to finish the shortened season with 27 homers and 76 RBIs, but he was seeking a long-term deal and turned down Texas' qualifying offer of $14.1 million to become a free agent.

Enter the Orioles, who were interested in Cruz from the get-go, looking for a middle-of-the-order bat to go with Adam Jones and Chris Davis. The O's talked with Cruz's representatives in November and at December's Winter Meetings, and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette flew out to California for another face-to-face meeting in January. Still, they were hesitant to give up Draft-pick compensation -- required since he turned down the qualifying offer -- and weren't willing to go three or four years on Cruz. There was also the question of how well Cruz would fit on manager Buck Showalter's close-knit team, particularly with two of the organization's role players -- Davis and Nick Markakis -- who have been outspoken against PEDs.

Showalter, who had been Cruz's first manager with the Rangers, sent out a few feelers to see if he had anything to worry about it in the Orioles' pursuit of Cruz.

"If it had been somebody I didn't know beforehand, [it would be a concern]," he said. "I knew Nelson and I felt confident. I asked a couple people if the guy that I remember was still the same guy in Texas. And he cares what his teammates think. I think more than anything, he was angry that [the suspension] took away from his teammates last year.

"As long as that mistake is not made again. That's what we talked about. I knew he would be a fit in our locker room once players got to know him."

Davis, who had been a Ranger with Cruz, and Markakis were among those who attended Cruz's official unveiling at a news conference after he signed a one-year, $8 million deal with incentives that was announced at the team's spring complex on Feb. 25.

Davis had seen it done when Texas signed Josh Hamilton and some of the guys, like Michael Young and Ian Kinsler, drummed up their teammates to show their public support.

"He had his struggles last year and it's something we kind of talked about amongst ourselves," Davis said. "Buck had made it a point to tell us, 'His press conference is going to be at such and such a time.' And we kind of got on the same page, making sure it was OK. We didn't want to take away from the fact that it was Nelson's press conference, but we wanted him to know that we love him and are behind him. And I think that was a good sign for him."

Cruz's signing came together as the offseason drew to a close. It was clear to Duquette that the other teams interested in Cruz weren't as concerned with the comp pick, and the O's, who had just signed Ubaldo Jimenez, were already forfeiting a higher Draft pick from that signing. So they made the move to go ahead, with no certainty of what the future may hold for players like Davis and Matt Wieters, who are only under team control through 2015.

"We liked the fact that not only is he a good hitter, but he was a good hitter when you needed to hit in the playoffs," Duquette said of Cruz, who has a .278/.336/.683 career line in 34 postseason games. "When they adjusted what they were looking for in terms of the term, it was a lot easier for us to enter into a deal.

"[His suspension] was part of our considerations in making an offer to Nelson ... Nelson had satisfied his obligations under the contract, he satisfied our obligations under the contract. And Nelson certainly deserves another opportunity to play ball. He's a highly-skilled player."

Cruz is the first to admit he has regrets, not just with the decisions he's made, but the way the winter unfolded.

"If you could read the future, yeah. You would probably take the qualifying offer," he said, laughing. "But it's something that you risk and you trust your instincts. In this case, it wasn't what I expected. But I'm happy with my decision and happy with where I am now. That's the only thing that matters. I'm not going to go in there and start complaining, it's already passed. My main goal now is to help the team win games and focus on getting it done on the field."

Cruz has been incredible for the Orioles so far, hitting a team-leading nine homers with 29 RBIs in 28 games to help keep a lineup that is missing Davis afloat. He was responsible for driving in four of the team's six runs in their weekend series against Minnesota, twice homering off the third deck.

"You kind of wonder when you are not seeing some of the pitches you were seeing in the past, when you are not able to do the damage if guys are going to step up," said Davis, who is on the disabled list with an oblique injury. "And he's been one of the guys that's stepped up and more than carried his share."

Davis echoes the sentiment of Cruz's past and present teammates, that he's a "first-rate" guy who puts winning first. Cruz is a good model for younger hitters -- as Duquette points out -- as he stays calm in the batters box and works the count, picking up 12 walks already this year. Cruz is a professional, polite but not particularly forthcoming with the media, and, by all early indications, a stark contrast to how he's been painted publicly.

"He was a great teammate," said Rangers infielder Adrian Beltre of Cruz. "He came and played hard every day. He was good in the clubhouse and you always knew he would give you everything he had to win a ballgame. What happened last year doesn't mean anything. He can still go out and have a great year."

"I knew he would have a great year," added Rangers manager Ron Washington. "That ballpark [at Camden Yards] can't hold Nelson. Nelson hits a popup there, it's gone. I'm not surprised by what Nelson is doing. He did it awhile for us. He had his struggles, but he always put up good numbers. They may have lost Chris Davis, but that ballpark can't hold him."

The good news for the O's is that they've played just 12 games at home, and six of Cruz's homers -- along with 23 RBIs -- have come on the road. As the weather starts to heat up, there's a lot to like about Cruz, who owns a .291/.341/.472 line at Camden Yards, being in a Baltimore uniform.

"You can't imagine what's going to happen in a new team," Cruz said. "It's always hard to imagine how it's going to change your life. But the transition was so easy. As soon as I get here, Buck received me really well, my teammates embraced me as part of the family.

"This year was easy. Last year was worse. Even when we are on the road and fans are yelling, Buck will say, 'Hey, I got your back.' I told him it doesn't bother me. What you deal with makes you stronger. It doesn't bother you as much because you went through that. You learn from your mistakes and try to move on, and hopefully they help you along the way. And I think so far, that's been the case."

Cruz's decision to use PEDs will never go away. He's an easy target at road ballparks, some much worse than others, but has been stunned by the warm reception he's gotten among Orioles fans since Day 1. The Cruuuuuuuuz chant, one of the loudest for players on Opening Day, has become a frequent way for fans to show their adoration for their newest -- and hottest -- hitter.

"It was unbelievable, the fans treat me like I've been there forever," Cruz said. "I think it's still a process for me to be able to go to the ballpark every day and try to just stay focused on whatever I have to do that day.

"But I do feel like [Biogenesis is] in the past. I think about it when people ask me. I'm good at forgetting stuff, bad stuff, and letting it go behind me. And that helps, especially as a baseball player. You got to perform every day. Whether it's good stuff or bad stuff, you have to forget about it and go to the next game or next play. And I think I have that ability."

If Cruz keeps this up, the O's and their fans won't want to remember what summer baseball in Baltimore was like without the 33-year-old.

"You can see why [people like him]," Showalter said. "Everybody does their homework, but you got to be able to play. I'll take my share of guys who have had their issues. It's a great environment to bring them into. And now, Nelson is part of that environment as much as he is a product of it."

Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @britt_ghiroli.
Read More: Baltimore Orioles, Nelson Cruz