New position, same bat: Cruz comes through

Nellie: 'I haven't had that much fun in a while'

August 25th, 2021

PHILADELPHIA --  delivered the biggest hit of the Rays’ 3-1 win over the Phillies on Tuesday night at Citizens Bank Park, ripping a tie-breaking two-run double to left-center field off reliever Archie Bradley in the eighth inning.

Afterward, Cruz didn’t get too worked up about coming through in the clutch. It was his third hit of the night and his 1,886th in the Major Leagues. The RBIs were Nos. 69 and 70 of the season, Nos. 1,221 and 1,222 of his career. It was an important hit in a good team win, yes, but he’s been there and done that plenty of times.

The moments that prompted palpable excitement from the 41-year-old slugger? A fourth-inning mound visit with starter Drew Rasmussen, catcher Mike Zunino, pitching coach Kyle Snyder and Cruz -- the first-time first baseman. And a seventh-inning pitching change from Adam Conley to JT Chargois, which Cruz spent in the infield. Seventeen years and 1,852 games into his big league tenure, those were career firsts for Cruz.

“I always wanted to see what’s going on. What do they talk about?” Cruz said, grinning. “Even when Snyder went and talked to 'Ras,' I was there, like, ‘So what’s the deal? What do you tell him?’”

The position Cruz played Tuesday night at Citizens Bank Park was new and exciting to him. As a professional baseball player, he had never been anything but an outfielder or a designated hitter. The way he performed at the plate was a little more familiar, and while routine to him, exactly what the Rays had in mind when they added the veteran power hitter to their lineup last month.

“Overall, I really enjoyed it. I haven’t had that much fun in a while,” Cruz said. “It seems like every play, you have to be ready for every single pitch, so I really enjoyed it. It was a blessing.”

Cruz went 3-for-4 with the game-winning hit in Tampa Bay’s third straight victory, helping the Rays improve to an American League-best 78-48 -- and a season-high 30 games over .500. He played a big part in yet another late charge by Tampa Bay’s lineup. And he handled himself just fine at first base, having a part in seven outs.

“Did a really good job,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Picked a play. … Went for a ball [in the third inning] that he shouldn't have gone for, but he came up with the biggest hit of the game, so we'll take it. He looked good. I think he enjoyed himself.”

Leading off the eighth inning of a 1-1 game after entering the game on a double-switch in the seventh, Brett Phillips singled to left and stole second. Bradley then hit Randy Arozarena, bringing up Cruz. The veteran slugger smashed a 113.4 mph missile into the gap in left-center field, driving in Phillips to put the Rays ahead, and Arozarena came around to score when the ball slipped past Phillies left fielder Odúbel Herrera, resulting in a two-run double for Cruz.

Seeing Cruz deliver at the plate is, of course, nothing new. Neither is that kind of late-inning rally by the Rays. They have scored a Major League-leading 249 runs in the seventh inning or later, including an MLB-best 91 runs in the eighth. They’ve outscored their opponents by 102 runs after the sixth inning this season.

“Phillips did a great job just to get on base early,” Cruz said. “And like it’s been since I’ve been here, we get good at-bats late in the games and we find a way to score runs.”

Also quite familiar? The Rays’ excellent pitching and defense in the series opener. Rasmussen, Conley, Chargois and Andrew Kittredge held Philadelphia to only six hits and a walk while striking out eight on the night.

Well-rested after two strong four-inning starts, Rasmussen also looks like a natural fit in Tampa Bay's rotation. He delivered five solid, efficient innings in his third start since stretching out, overcoming what he described as subpar command with his breaking ball to allow just one run on four hits and a walk.

Rasmussen recorded just one strikeout and forced the Phillies to swing and miss twice, but he changed speeds well enough and threw enough early strikes to breeze through the outing on only 58 pitches, despite throwing 26 in the first inning alone.

“Five innings, one run -- anybody's going to sign up for that,” Cash said. “Just another good outing. Good fastball. And this team can hit, man. They’ve got some guys that got plenty of thump.”

Rasmussen and the Rays’ relievers had plenty of support behind them, too, as Tampa Bay put together another impressive defensive effort right from the start.

Yandy Díaz tiptoed near the Rays’ dugout to snag the first out behind Rasmussen, only for his momentum to send him down the stairs. Wander Franco made several sharp plays, highlighted by a stop on Didi Gregorius’ two-out grounder deep in the hole with runners on first and second in the first.

Cruz picked Franco’s strong, one-hop throw for the final out of the inning and trotted off the field with a smile he wouldn’t shake the rest of the night.

“That guy at first was a natural, huh?” Rasmussen quipped.