Cruz homers, energizes Rays in debut

Slugger makes quite a first impression as Tampa Bay batters the Indians' 'pen again

July 24th, 2021

Rays designated hitter arrived in Cleveland on Friday, a day after being acquired from the Twins, and was immediately placed third in the starting lineup against the Indians. He made his presence felt in Tampa Bay's 10-5 victory over the Indians at Progressive Field.

In his second at-bat of the game with Tampa Bay leading 3-0 in the third inning, Cruz homered on a 1-1 pitch off right-hander Zach Plesac, knocking a solo shot out to right field to increase the Rays’ lead to 4-0. His teammates excitedly greeted him in the dugout.

“[The home run] was really nice,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “He looks really good in a Rays uniform. He looks good in all the uniforms he has worn. I’m biased to the one he has now.”

The Rays were hyped when Cruz walked into the building on Friday afternoon. The team acted as if losing was not an option.

“The energy in the dugout today was a little different or a little more excited than usual,” Cash said.

Joey Wendle said Cruz carries a presence when he walks in a room.

“You see the highlights. You see the type of player he is, obviously, almost every night. We are still getting to know him,” Wendle said. “Everybody knows he can hit, but just seeing how he fits right in the clubhouse [is cool, too].”

Said outfielder Randy Arozarena, “He is a quality type of person with a lot of energy. He is the type of person who likes to win and help everyone on the team. Hopefully, he helps me [learn] how to hit home runs.”

For quite a while, it looked as if Cruz’s bomb was going to be the game-winner after José Ramírez hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the third. But Ramírez was the Rays’ nemesis again in the seventh, tying the score at 4-4 with an RBI triple.

Tampa Bay took the lead in the ninth inning with six runs off relievers Nick Wittgren and Blake Parker. Wendle singled to left-center field, driving in Arozarena. Two batters later, Ji-Man Choi hit a three-run homer. Parker was in the game when Cruz scored on Yandy Díaz's groundout, then Brett Phillips scored on Wander Franco's single.

At 41 years and 22 days old, Cruz became the second-oldest player in Rays history to hit a home run. Only Wade Boggs, at 41 years and 53 days, was older when he homered against Cleveland on Aug. 7, 1999.

Cruz also became the third-oldest player since at least 1901 to homer in his debut with a team. Only Henry Blanco (41 years, 290 days with the Mariners in 2013) and Dave Winfield (41 years, 185 days with the Twins in 1993) were older.

Even at his age, Cruz is still dominating in the batter’s box, hitting .293 with 20 home runs and 51 RBIs in 86 games with the Twins and Rays. He said experience and staying healthy are the reasons he remains a feared slugger.

“I found a way to stay healthy. I know my body really well,” Cruz said before the game. “I work out a lot and I work on recovery a lot.”

Cruz said he was pleased to be on a playoff contender. Tampa Bay is only a game behind the Red Sox in the American League East.

“I will do my best to be myself,” Cruz said. “Every moment that I have here will be great for me. It was something that I was looking for. To have the chance to be with this type of team with these types of players, coaching staff -- a great group of guys. They showed they have what it takes to go to the World Series. I’m excited to go out there and win it all.”

Cruz will be looked to for leadership and will mentor young players such as Franco, the top prospect in baseball. Cruz said he spoke to Franco before they arrived at Progressive Field on Friday, and Franco went on to have a three-hit game. 

“Hopefully, I can help him out. I try to stay positive. That’s the key,” Cruz said.

Cruz learned how to be a mentor by watching former Rangers teammate Michael Young go about his business. Young and Cruz were together from 2006-12, and Cruz remembered that Young never changed his personality -- win or lose.

“He was a great leader on and off the field,” Cruz said about Young. “He was great with the media, the players. He showed a lot of us how he carried himself on the field, the way he played.”

Rays catcher Mike Zunino knows firsthand how Cruz is as a leader. The two played together for four years with the Mariners from 2015-18.

“He is one of the best teammates you could ask for, a true professional,” Zunino said. “What he brings every day is energy. He brings a big presence, and he is going to be a presence for our younger players. With some of the young guys we have up here, I could see them taking a liking to him, and he is going to help us in more ways than just on the field.”