'It's all about confidence': Cruz looks to move past slump

April 21st, 2024

PITTSBURGH -- After fouling off two inside offerings from Red Sox starter Josh Winckowski and spitting on a couple changeups away, appeared to get the type of pitch he was searching for in the third inning Sunday. Winckowski came in with a sinker that was in the same spot that he had taken two hacks, but this time, Cruz watched it go by. It caught the edge of the strike zone, and the Pirates’ slugger was rung up for strike three.

It wasn’t the type of at-bat one would normally expect from Cruz. Same goes for his overall performance Sunday in the Pirates’ 6-1 loss to the Red Sox at PNC Park, which included another hitless performance by their shortstop and him dropping a popup in the eighth that resulted in a run.

“It's all about confidence,” said Cruz about the strikeouts, via interpreter and coach Stephen Morales. “I've been losing my confidence a little bit lately, but game by game, hopefully I'll get it back.”

Cruz’s recent production doesn’t do much to inspire confidence. Over his past 12 games, he is batting .091 (4-for-44) with 22 strikeouts after his 0-for-2 performance Sunday, where he walked and struck out once. Those struggles at the plate have coincided with the team’s first extended losing streak of the season, being swept by the Mets on the road and the Red Sox at home to fall to 11-11.

In that time, the offense has not been able to find second gear, or even a second run. Sunday’s offense was capped at a first-inning Connor Joe double and then Bryan Reynolds and Ke’Bryan Hayes moving him over a station. During their six-game losing streak, the Pirates have scored just nine runs, including four games with just one run. On Sunday, the mistakes ranged from Hayes and Jack Suwinski being thrown out at second base after base hits to fielding miscues and Martín Pérez being more wild and inefficient than usual.

“It was a sloppy game,” said manager Derek Shelton. “We didn’t play well. You can point out multiple things that we need to clean up. In certain situations, guys are trying to do a little too much. In certain situations, we just played sloppy.”

It’s unfair to put all of the Pirates’ offensive struggles at Cruz’s feet. He is just one of nine people in the lineup. With that said, he was projected to be a major part of the offense, projecting him to be the leadoff hitter and one of their big power bats. He has not lived up to that, and Sunday marked his second straight day batting eighth.

“He’s a big part of our offense,” Shelton said. “We have to figure it out. He’s not gonna figure it out by getting multiple days off right now. We need to run him out there.”

Speaking on his 93.7 The Fan radio show before Sunday’s game, general manager Ben Cherington agreed with the sentiment that Cruz needs to try to play through his issues, especially after being limited to just nine games a year ago because of a fractured ankle.

“He missed basically an entire season, and he had a very significant injury that required a lot of work and rehab,” Cherington said. “... Personally speaking, nothing that’s happened for him so far this season has been all that surprising for me.”

While Cruz may be searching for more confidence, his teammates still have full faith in him. Postgame, Michael A. Taylor was seen saying something private to Cruz via Morales, and the two fist bumped after the exchange. Joe reiterated his full belief that Cruz is 'gonna do really special things,' too.

“When you miss out on 600 at-bats, it's gonna take you a little bit to get going,” Joe said. “I don't care who you are, you're gonna go through some times in baseball and it's gonna humble you. But, I can tell you in the clubhouse there's no loss of confidence in Oneil."

But amid a losing streak where every mistake can get magnified, Cruz’s early season slump is going to be one of the most obvious issues. He has the talent to be one of the best players on the team, if not his position, but he is not exempt from those growing pains.

“It's a constant battle for me after being out for a year just to get back to where I was and gain that confidence,” Cruz said. “It's an everyday battle, but I'll be fine.”