When pressure's on, O's Cruz shines brightest
Slugger one of best playoff performers of his era
KANSAS CITY -- Nobody ever wants to be down 2-0 in a postseason series. But if that is going to be your fate, it sure doesn't hurt to have Nelson Cruz on your side.
The Orioles slugger has put teams on his back before at this time of year, and if he can do it again in the American League Championship Series, perhaps Cruz will finally get the notice he deserves as one of the best pressure players of this era.
Consider that Cruz has 16 home runs in 159 postseason plate appearances, tying him with Carlos Beltran for ninth on the all-time list. However, Beltran has that number in 219 plate appearances.
The eight players in history who have more home runs in the postseason than Cruz all had more than 200 plate appearances.
Nobody in the last decade has received more notice than his heroics this time of year than David Ortiz, one of Cruz's mentors. Yet Big Papi himself has 17 playoff homers, just one more than Cruz, and that's in 357 plate appearances.
"The man steps up," Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said of Cruz. "I don't know why. This is my first time seeing him. He's just big in those situations."
The first reason is comfort. Though some people get unnerved by being on the big stage, it makes Cruz feel at home.
"Yeah, no doubt," said Cruz. "I think winter ball helps. Every game in winter ball is very intense. I think that helped me to be comfortable."
Another reason is focus. If some players can start to think about extraneous pressure when playing in these games, Cruz is able to zone in on each pitch.
"I can't explain it," Cruz said. "I guess the way you prepare for every game, it makes a difference. You know that every pitch is important and every play is important. You focus a little bit better than the regular season."
There is just one time Cruz remembers being nervous on the playoff stage. It was Oct. 6, 2010, under the roof of Tropicana Field. It was the first postseason game of his career. Oh, by the way, Cruz hit a home run that day to lead the Rangers to victory over the Rays.
"My first at-bat, probably I was nervous as I could ever be," Cruz said. "My second at-bat, it was like, this is just another game and I tried to relax and realize it's a baseball game. I've played so many games that one more isn't going to make a difference. Just go and relax and play your game."
When the Orioles swept the Tigers in the AL Division Series, they were powered by two home runs from Cruz, who had a career regular season, belting 40 homers.
Though they lost nailbiters to the Royals in the first two games of this series, Cruz was there raking, producing multi-hit games on both occasions.
And if they are to turn the tables and send the series back to Baltimore, Cruz is likely going to have something to say about it.
It isn't just power that Cruz produces at this time of year. He is a career .306 hitter in the postseason, to go along with 34 RBIs and a 1.059 OPS.
Cruz's career regular-season numbers? A .268 average and an .829 OPS.
Once, Cruz's friend Ortiz told him a clear path to success in October.
"One of the things David told me was that if one or two players get hot in that situation, it can take you a long way," said Cruz. "It's obvious what they did last year. He said, 'You just need one or two players to get hot and they can take over a whole team."'
Cruz resonated with quiet confidence as he held court at his locker on Sunday night.
"If we're trying to win, we have to play the same way we've played all year long," said Cruz of Tuesday's Game 3 (8 p.m. ET, TBS). "There should be reason to be concerned, yes, but I don't think it's a reason to be worried about this. The main thing for us to stay focused and take all the positive things we've done the first two games and bring it to the table again."