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Monday, September 30, 2013
Updated: October 1, 4:02 AM ET
No promised land for Cruz, Rangers

By Jean-Jacques Taylor
ESPNDallas.com

Nelson Cruz

All seemed forgiven for Nelson Cruz upon returning to the Rangers following a 50-game suspension for violating baseball's PED policy. But there would be no fairy-tale ending against the Rays on Monday.

ARLINGTON, Texas -- When Nelson Cruz stepped into the batter's box Monday night for the first time since Aug. 4, he received a standing ovation from the white towel-waving throng of more than 42,796 at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

You would have thought Cruz was returning to the lineup from a serious injury, not a 50-game suspension for violating MLB's performance-enhancing drug policy.

But this is America, a country founded on religious tenets, and we love forgiving folks.

After all, Cruz had admitted his sin, asked for forgiveness and paid his debt to MLB. Besides, his teammates wanted him back and the Texas Rangers' pathetic offense needed a boost by any means possible.

Everything was in place for a storybook ending. It didn't happen.

David Price shut down the Rangers' offense with a strong performance to earn the Tampa Bay Rays the second wild-card entry in the playoffs and end the Rangers' season.

Nelson Cruz

Cruz signed autographs after batting practice and received a standing ovation during his first trip to a big league plate since Aug. 4.

Tampa Bay 5, Texas 2.

"It was really special. I just tried to take it one moment at a time," Cruz said of the ovation. "It was nice to see the fans support me.

"I'm part of the team. I didn't try to turn around the whole lineup. I just wanted to battle and compete. It's tough. You can practice a lot and see a lot of pitches, but it's not like major league pitching."

No joke.

Sure, Cruz spent the past few weeks in Arizona getting at-bats against instructional league pitchers to keep in baseball shape, but that didn't prepare him for Monday night.

In the big leagues, pitchers throw 83 mph sliders that clip the edge of the plate and 95 mph fastballs at the knees that move to and fro.

Price, pitching tentatively and taking an eternity between pitches, struggled early.

We probably shouldn't have been surprised, given his 1-7 career record with a 6.62 ERA in 11 starts against Texas, but the Rangers couldn't deliver a key hit to affect his psyche.

Cruz had only one at-bat with a runner in scoring position. It occurred with one out in the second inning after a leadoff double by Adrian Beltre.

Cruz seemed overmatched. He swung late on a couple of Price fastballs, sending foul balls down the right-field line.

Still, he lined a 1-2 pitch fastball that first baseman James Loney speared with a leaping grab.

"I hit it pretty well," Cruz said.

Price probably figured Cruz hadn't seen many quality off-speed pitches, so he changed velocity throughout Cruz's at-bats.

Cruz grounded out to third in the fifth and struck out in the seventh after helplessly flailing at a breaking ball.

"There was no way to know what Nelson would do," Beltre said. "We knew he would be prepared and the guys were happy to have him back. There were some guys who played every game that went 0-4 tonight."

Good starting pitching and a terrific bullpen hid the Rangers' offensive flaws for months.

Against Tampa Bay, the Rangers were held to two runs or less for the 54th time this season. That's a third of the season, and they were 6-48 in those games.

Texas general manager Jon Daniels has to take the blame for the Rangers' shoddy offense.

There's nothing wrong with trading utility infielder Michael Young and letting center fielder Josh Hamilton and catcher Mike Napoli leave via free agency, even though they combined for 75 homers, 251 RBI and 235 runs scored.

But Daniels essentially used four players -- Leonys Martin, Lance Berkman, A.J. Pierzynski and Jurickson Profar -- to replace the departed Rangers, and they still fell woefully short, combining for 37 homers, 179 RBI and 171 runs scored.

Injuries limited Berkman to 73 games and Profar, sold to us as a transcendent player, hit just .234 in 85 games.

In the end, it seemed ironic that Cruz was the Rangers' final hope to start a rally to make the playoffs.

With two outs in the ninth, he grounded deep to shortstop and hustled down the line. When he was thrown out, he turned left and trudged to the dugout, where many of his teammates watched the Rays celebrate a trip to the playoffs.

"I battled and I gave my best," Cruz said. "It's tough. We had a chance to win this game. We battled, but we couldn't find a way to get enough runs."

It's why the Rangers will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2009.