Nellie gets first start at 1B since ... ever?

August 25th, 2021

PHILADELPHIA -- There’s a first time for everything, including first base.

Nelson Cruz, who hadn’t played the field at all since 2018 and hadn’t done so for more than five games in five years, started at first base Tuesday night and played there for seven innings in the Rays’ 3-1 win over the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. Cruz had only ever played the outfield in the Majors and Minors, and hadn’t previously spent an inning in the infield in the regular season during his professional career, which began in 2001.

Cruz said he has played first base before, though -- if you count charity softball games for his foundation about two years ago, that is. He admitted before the game that he’d be nervous in the first inning, but said he intended to enjoy himself.

Oh, did he ever.

“To win the game, you have to score runs. But also, I was really pumped to be able to not only help my team with the bat,” Cruz said. “Playing defense is also a huge part of winning, and to be able to pick the ball and be involved in a few plays, it really put a huge smile on my face.”

The 41-year-old designated hitter’s first career start at first came Tuesday for a few reasons. The Rays are playing under National League rules during this two-game series in Philadelphia, so they can’t use the veteran slugger as a DH. Plus, they were facing a left-handed starting pitcher in Ranger Suárez, so starting Cruz allowed manager Kevin Cash to slot another right-handed bat into the lineup -- one that delivered a tie-breaking two-run double in the eighth, too.

“He looked comfortable enough over there,” Cash said. “And look, the way their [starter] threw, we really wanted his bat to stay out as long as he did.”

Additionally, first baseman Ji-Man Choi was placed on the 10-day injured list before the series opener due to a left hamstring strain he sustained on Sunday, and he is expected to miss 10 days to two weeks. Cruz was reinstated from the COVID-19 IL as a corresponding move after producing a false positive test Sunday, which was followed by two negative tests.

Since Tampa Bay didn’t recall another position player, those moves left the Rays with four true infielders on the active roster: Joey Wendle, Wander Franco, Brandon Lowe and Yandy Díaz. With Cruz at first on Tuesday, Díaz started at third base, with Franco at shortstop and Lowe at second. After his big hit in the eighth, Cruz left the game, Díaz moved to first and Wendle entered to play third base.

Cruz has taken some ground balls at first base during pregame infield drills since joining the Rays in a July 22 trade with the Twins, and he said he practiced fielding grounders there four or five days a week alongside Minnesota’s Miguel Sanó -- whose glove Cruz used Tuesday night -- over the past few years.

"So I’ve got a few ground balls in my pocket," Cruz quipped.

“All kidding aside, he has worked a lot at first base,” Cash said before the game. “Talking to [Twins manager Rocco Baldelli] and their front office, they all noted that he goes out there and does his work and it keeps him active. He hasn't done a ton of work since we've acquired him at first base, but I asked him. He said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ So, we'll see how it goes.”

It went quite well. He picked a bouncing throw by Franco to end the first inning, an impressive play on both ends, and Cruz was clearly fired up as he ran back to the dugout. If there was one mistake, it came when he tried to charge a ground ball to second base -- but Lowe and pitcher Drew Rasmussen made the inning-ending play anyway.

“Everything was fun. I had to slow down,” Cruz said. “I thought every ground ball I could catch. Even the one to shortstop, I almost tried to go get it.”

Cruz played four games in right field for Seattle in 2018, three of them in NL parks, and all five of his starts in right field in ’17 came while playing under NL rules. The last time Cruz was even somewhat of a regular in the field was during the '16 season, when he played 48 games in right field for the Mariners. Since then, he’s been a full-time DH. Tuesday was his first time in the lineup at a position other than DH since he started in right field for the Mariners on Sept. 30, 2018.

At 41 years and 54 days old, Cruz became the fifth-oldest player since 1900 to make his first career start at a particular fielding position, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The only older players to previously start at a new spot, per Elias:

Luke Appling: 43 years, 19 days (first base; April 21, 1950)
Omar Vizquel: 42 years, 29 days (second base; May 23, 2009)
Vizquel: 42 years, 15 days (third base; May 9, 2009)
Brian Downing: 41 years, 361 days (second base; Oct. 4, 1992)
Bert Campaneris: 41 years, 58 days (second base; May 6, 1983)

Archer update
Right-hander Chris Archer, who exited Sunday’s win over the White Sox at Tropicana Field after two innings due to left hip tightness, is scheduled to throw a bullpen session on Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park. If Archer comes out of that feeling fine physically, he will take his turn to start Sunday against the Orioles in Baltimore on six days’ rest.

“Let's just hope that the hip responds maybe a little bit better than it has here as of late,” Cash said.

If Archer’s injury is serious enough to send him to the 10-day IL, the Rays could start left-hander Josh Fleming -- who pitched three innings in relief after Archer’s early exit -- in his place against Baltimore. Tampa Bay has lefty Shane McClanahan and righty Michael Wacha slated to start the first two games in Baltimore, with Luis Patiño lined up to start next Monday’s series opener against the Red Sox.