Cruz hits 'slam' like you've never seen

September 7th, 2021

BOSTON -- With 445 home runs in his 17-year Major League career, is used to rounding the bases like he did after crushing a solo shot over the Green Monster late Monday afternoon -- at a slow jog, the same way he covered the last 90 feet in the fourth inning Monday afternoon at Fenway Park, but not so much the first 270 feet.

It took a high fly ball, the afternoon sun interfering with center fielder Alex Verdugo’s effort to catch it and an errant throw from second baseman Taylor Motter sailing into the third-base camera well. But Cruz pulled off a wild and unlikely Little League “grand slam” that jolted the Rays back to life in their eventual 11-10 win over the Red Sox.

“That was fun. I definitely enjoy to play like a kid. That's the way you should play,” Cruz said. “It was a great victory. I think that's one of the sweetest ones, I guess, because the way we [were] down by six runs … and to be able to come back and win, definitely it shows the layers of this team. No matter the situation, we never give up.”

That play was one of several huge moments for Cruz, the Rays’ big midseason acquisition, in Monday’s dramatic victory. The home run he hit in the eighth put Tampa Bay in position to tie the game on Austin Meadows’ inside-the-park home run in the ninth. Cruz delivered a go-ahead single in the 10th inning, advanced to second on a heads-up play and scored what turned out to be a necessary insurance run on Brandon Lowe’s single to right.

But the fly ball to center field -- a triple in the mind of Cruz and Rays manager Kevin Cash, if not the official scorer -- kick-started the Rays’ comeback and inspired some amusing reactions from his teammates.

“The big man was moving around the bases,” rookie shortstop Wander Franco said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “He was hustling. He knows how to play baseball, and he showed it there.”

“It's just a joy to watch,” Meadows said. “Especially someone that big, to be able to move like that and get the extra bases and just being a team player, doing what he can and hustling on the bases to put our team in a better position to score runs and ultimately win. … Seeing him come in the dugout smiling and kind of getting everybody jumping up and down, we just have a lot of fun out there and that translates to winning games.”

As entertaining as the play turned out to be, it was also important for the Rays. Tampa Bay seemed to be out of the game after left-hander Ryan Yarbrough allowed six runs in the second inning, putting them in a 7-1 hole, but that play made it a two-run game.

Facing Chris Sale with the bases loaded and two outs in the fourth, Cruz skied a 2-2 slider to center field. After taking one step onto the warning track, Verdugo reached to catch Cruz’s fly ball but missed, instead knocking it toward right-center field with his glove. Taylor Walls, Randy Arozarena and Franco scored as the ball rolled in front of Boston’s bullpen, and Cruz hustled to third base.

Motter airmailed the relay throw to third, however, so Cruz hopped up and trotted home. The play was initially ruled a triple -- it would’ve been Cruz’s second of the season and only the 15th of his career -- with an error charged to Motter. However, a scoring change corrected the ruling to include a three-base error by Verdugo, a throwing error charged to Motter and no RBIs for Cruz.

“I just, I guess, have to lead by example,” Cruz said. “I always tell [third-base coach Rodney] Linares to send everybody. That was a situation, I guess, keep going until I get thrown out.”

Between that and the extra base he took in the 10th inning, putting himself in scoring position to score a critical run, it was the 41-year-old’s baserunning that drew substantial praise from his manager and teammates after the game. Praise and, yes, a few jokes.

“I think Nellie sometimes thinks he's invisible out there,” Cash said, grinning. “I'm not exactly sure what he's doing, but we'll take it today.”