Cruz is making another shot count
Four years before Texas slugger's dream postseason, just playing in majors was dream
ARLINGTON, Texas -- More than four years before Nelson Cruz became the first player to hit six home runs and 13 RBIs in the same playoff series, the slugger sat on the floor inside a cramped manager's office in Oklahoma City, wondering if his dream of playing in the major leagues was over.
It wouldn't be the first time Cruz, MVP of the 2011 AL Championship Series, had asked himself that question. But after piling up minor league numbers that had scouts raving, Cruz once again couldn't seem to crush big league pitching the way he blistered the boys in the minors.
It was June 2007 and Cruz was back at Triple-A after starting that season in the majors. He struggled to find a rhythm and couldn't earn more playing time. He knew as he unpacked his bags and prepared for life in the minors that time was running out.
He was 26 years old and playing with his second big league organization after the Texas Rangers acquired him in a six-player deal with Milwaukee at the trade deadline in 2006. The headliner of that deal was Carlos Lee, but first-year general manager Jon Daniels insisted he wouldn't make the trade without the inclusion of the powerful Cruz, who could not only hit towering homers but had a cannon for an arm.
Yet here he was, in the minors, again, less than a year later and searching for answers.
"He was at a really low point," said Scott Servais, the Rangers' senior director of player development and a believer that Cruz had the tools to make it big. "He was always coachable, but at that point he was willing to make some major changes."
Seated on the floor in a minor league clubhouse without the amenities of the majors, Cruz listened as manager Bobby Jones and one of the club's hitting instructors, Mike Boulanger, explained what Servais and the club had in mind.
"I knew they wanted to make a change, and I knew I had to be a better hitter to make it," Cruz said.
The plan was to retool Cruz's swing plane and vision by altering his batting stance. No longer would he use a closed stance; instead he would open way up. The idea was to allow his eyes to see even more of the pitcher and pick up the ball out of his hand quicker. Just as important, it would force his swing to become flatter.
"At that time, Nellie could hit the low ball but had trouble with velocity up in the zone and inside," Servais said. "It worked for other guys like Luis Gonzalez and Andres Galarraga. We thought this would help."
Servais flew to Albuquerque, N.M., shortly after Cruz was sent back to the minors and worked for two days with him in the batting cages. He gave him three specific drills and told Cruz to do them every day for three weeks and make sure he used the new stance in batting practice.
Servais was helping Cruz create different muscle memory in regard to his bat path. Cruz hit balls off a high tee, focusing on getting on top of the ball. He would then do a "slot" drill in which he opened his stance and would hit balls flipped to him. The goal was to hit balls up the middle and get used to feeling his elbow drop and the bat going into the proper "slot," or path. It's not unlike a golfer on the downswing finding the proper plane to strike the ball flush on impact. Cruz would also use a short bat and do one-hand drills to hone in on the path with each hand and then a fungo (which is longer than his regular bat) with both hands to drive balls up the middle.
"We set up the program for him to do it for three weeks or a month every day because that's how long it takes to get the muscle memory," Servais said. "He has that now, so he doesn't have to do all of these things each day. But that was the routine we set for him and he was good about following it."
Cruz embraced the change and immediately started doing it in games.
"We told him not to worry about the results and that it would take time," said Boulanger, who worked with Cruz on the drills. "He deserves the credit. He put the work in and trusted what we were telling him."
It didn't take long for Cruz to start having some success. He was recalled to the majors in late July 2007 to help with the club's outfield depth and went 2-for-3 with two home runs and five RBIs in his first game back, at Kansas City.
I said, 'I'm telling you he's making changes.' You could see it." -- Scott Servais, the Rangers' senior director of player development, on Nelson Cruz's at-bat adjustments in the minors in 2008
"That helped," Cruz said. "I felt like I could do it and I had some confidence."
He hit .276 with six homers and 22 RBIs in 53 games in finishing the season with the Rangers.
Cruz went into 2008 with confidence and was ready to seize the starting job in right field. That should have been the end of the story.
"But I didn't have a good spring training," Cruz said.
As the club prepared to leave Surprise, Ariz., to start the 2008 season, Daniels and his staff had a choice for the final outfield spot. Jason Botts, another prospect who hadn't quite realized his potential, was having a better camp and the club felt he fit that role. Botts was a switch-hitter and the Rangers figured Botts could help the big league club more and that Cruz had a better chance of getting through waivers.
Cruz, out of options, was put on waivers. It's become a famous story now in that any club could have plucked Cruz from the Rangers for $20,000. But at the time, many teams already had their rosters set so close to the season, making it tough to claim a guy who was out of options. In addition, Cruz's reputation was as a Quad-A player, one who could mesmerize scouts in Triple-A and put on a batting-practice show a few hours before a big league game but couldn't hit major league pitching.
So Cruz was back in the minors again and a year older. To his credit, he didn't accept that his career was over. A few teams from Japan inquired about Cruz, but the Rangers weren't willing to let him go.
"He was still working and I noticed that he was becoming better with his plate discipline," Servais said.
No longer was Cruz fishing at balls in the dirt. Pitchers were hesitant to come inside or even high on him, knowing he could now punish those types of balls.
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Cruz once again was putting up ridiculous numbers, winning monthly Pacific Coast League awards and handing fans plenty of souvenir home run balls.
Servais flew into Colorado Springs one day in the middle of the season and watched what he felt was a more mature hitter.
"He walks to the plate with one out, bases loaded, and choked up on the bat," Servais said. "For me, it was seeing a physical difference. He wasn't trying to hit the ball 500 feet, though he certainly could, but was trying to drive the runs home. He hit a double to right-center."
Servais asked Cruz after the game why he choked up on his bat.
"He said, 'I made an adjustment and I had to get those runs home,'" Servais said. "That was what I wanted to hear. It was the same approach he took with two strikes. He had become really tough to get out."
Servais called Daniels, excited by what he was seeing.
"I remember telling JD, 'Hey, man, this guy is getting it,'" Servais said. "From afar you don't know and JD said, 'Well, he always gets it at Triple-A.' I said, 'I'm telling you he's making changes.' You could see it."
Cruz forced his way into another opportunity thanks to his approach and the sheer ridiculousness of his Triple-A numbers. He was the PCL MVP that season with a .342 average, 37 homers and 99 RBIs in 103 games and 383 at-bats. Cruz led all of minor league baseball with a .693 slugging percentage and was showing off his speed, too, with 24 stolen bases, third most in the PCL. He hit a home run every 10.35 at-bats.
"He had to excel at an extremely high level to get another shot, and he did," Boulanger said.
Boulanger and Servais reminded Cruz before he returned to the big club on Aug. 25, 2008, to stick with his routine and not get discouraged if things slowed. But they didn't. Cruz led all Rangers with 26 RBIs and 17 walks during his five-week stay, and his 1.030 OPS was the second highest in the AL in that span.
The changes to his swing and a renewed boost to his confidence were enough to insure that Cruz remained in the big leagues for good. And all he did was get better.
Cruz hit .260 with a career-high 33 homers and 76 RBIs in 128 games in 2009, cementing his spot in right field. His arm also improved. He was making accurate throws and forcing third-base coaches to think twice about sending runners.
He battled some hamstring issues in 2010, but between stints on the disabled list he was extremely productive. Cruz hit .318 with 22 homers and 78 RBIs. He saved his best effort for the postseason.
Cruz started in left field in all 16 playoff games and led the club in runs (13), total bases (44), extra-base hits (13), doubles (seven), homers (six) and RBIs (11). He batted .317 and hit safely in 15 of the 16 tilts. Cruz had three homers in the ALDS and seemed to play his best in clinching games. He had three hits in Game 5 of the ALDS in Tampa and a homer in Game 6 of the ALCS.
This season, Cruz once again established himself as one of the game's most feared power hitters. He hit 29 home runs and had 87 RBIs, then a late hamstring injury slowed him heading into the playoffs. Cruz was 1-for-15 with five strikeouts in the ALDS. His timing appeared a little off, and he didn't seem comfortable.
So he watched some video, had a talk with hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh and could sense things were improving.
"I was swinging at good pitches to hit," Cruz said, "I just wasn't hitting them."
Coolbaugh could tell Cruz was ready to break out and thought he just needed some slight adjustments.
"He was getting a little big with his swing," Coolbaugh said. "He was trying to do too much. He had a couple of good at-bats at the end of that [division] series and started to get a feel for it. He was in a good mind frame to perform and do what he's capable of doing."
"He went to right-center, left field, all parts of the field," he added. "He was in a zone, and that's what he's capable of when he slows things down."
Cruz finished the ALCS as the series MVP thanks to doing something no one has ever done in a postseason series: hit those six homers and drive in 13 runs.
He's playing like a Rangers version of Reggie Jackson, collecting huge hits when they matter most -- in October.
"There are a few guys that when they get going they can carry a team, and he's one of them," said bench coach Jackie Moore. "He found it in this series and was great for us."
And he's doing it with that same swing that was formed during those tough years in the minors.
"He earned another chance and he worked hard to get it," Servais said. "It's not easy to change your swing like that, especially when you've hit the ball well in the minors and know you can hit. It's gratifying to see it all work out."
Richard Durrett covers the Texas Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.
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