Spring training, for veteran players, generally unfolds in the sort of comfortable monotony that comes from slipping into an old pair of jeans. Accomplishments (and failures) are graded to scale.
Every so often, though, an exception demands attention.
Cue up the third inning at Peoria Stadium on March 22 when Nelson Cruz crushed a fastball from Texas right-hander Yovani Gallardo with two runners on base.
The ball took off like a laser toward center field and struck high against the 40-foot batter’s eye beyond the 410-foot wall for a three-run homer before ricocheting back onto the field.
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It was, at least to some, even more impressive than Rickie Weeks’ monstrous drive March 7 against Arizona. That’s saying something because Weeks’ bash cleared the batter’s eye.
“That ball Cruz hit didn’t go over the wall,” third baseman Kyle Seager marveled. “It looked like it was going to go through the wall.”
That’s how @NCBoomstick23 sends out tweets in the real world.
The Mariners reset their franchise roughly 16 months ago by luring All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano to the Northwest by shelling out $240 million over the length of a 10-year contract.
Among Cano’s first words were a warning that he couldn’t do it alone — although he fueled a turnaround, in tandem with the league’s best pitching staff, that kept the Mariners in contention for postseason until the final day of the 2014 season.
The organization’s in-house postmortem then reached the obvious conclusion; the Mariners needed more muscle in the middle of their lineup. Only three American League clubs scored fewer runs.
“Certainly, the No. 1 priority was to try to find a middle-of-the-lineup hitter,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “Someone who would bat behind Cano, and someone who would be a force.”
In short, the Mariners needed a Boomstick.
They pursued and signed Cruz, the guy who led the majors last season with 40 homers, on Dec. 4 for $57 million over the next four seasons.
“I don’t know how many times I said (last season) in press conferences that we were challenged from an offensive standpoint,” manager Lloyd McClendon noted. “We were challenged with balance in the lineup.
“This guy addresses that.”
There’s irony here.
The Mariners took a hard look a year earlier at Cruz, when he was a free agent coming off a 50-game suspension for his involvement in the Biogenesis drug scandal.
Cruz drew scant interest on the market because of concerns generated from the taint of that scandal. Specifically, would he display the same power potential?
For his part, Cano pushed the Mariners to sign his teammate from the Dominican Republic’s title-winning club in the World Baseball Classic. And even then, the Mariners knew they needed more pop in their lineup.
The two sides talked and reached the framework for a one-year deal for $7.5 million that included a $9 million club option for 2015. The deal fell apart when ownership backed away in the late stages.
“It was pretty close,” Cruz recalled. “Unfortunately, we didn’t make it happen.”
In stepped the Baltimore Orioles, who snagged Cruz with a one-year offer for $8 million. He then silenced all doubters by putting together the best season of his career.
“He didn’t have a chip on his shoulder,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter told the Baltimore Sun. “He just came in with something to prove about questions people had about him.”
Cruz hit those 40 homers and drove in 108 runs. Both were career highs. He was picked as an All-Star for the third time in his career and finished seventh in AL MVP balloting.
“He had an amazing season,” Baltimore first baseman/outfielder Steve Pearce said. “Great teammate. Great guy. It’s an honor to be on the same team as him.”
Then Cruz went back on the market.
The Orioles offered a three-year deal, but the Mariners offered four. Bidding might have intensified had Cruz let the market develop into December.
But he saw no reason to do so.
“I want to be part of a winning team,” Cruz said, “and this is the best choice I could make.”
By signing Cruz, the Mariners simultaneously addressed their biggest need and positioned themselves as a trendy pick to reach the postseason for the first time since 2001.
“Jack said, ‘We are going to build a championship team around you over the next three years,’ ” Cano said. “And that’s what he’s done. They’ve signed the pieces for the puzzle that we needed.”
There are still doubters.
It’s a legitimate question to ask how Cruz’s power will translate to Safeco Field which, even as it enters a third season of slightly cozier dimensions, is still regarded as a tough hitters’ park.
“I try to hit line drives,” he said. “If it goes out, it goes out. That’s my approach. I’ve played here all of my life. So I know what Seattle is all about. I know Safeco Field. It’s nothing new for me.”
The words come out softly and reflect a humility that turns teammates and others into friends and staunch supporters.
“Nelson is not a guy that ever is tooting his own horn,” Showalter said. “It’s pretty hard for other people not to toot it for him and I think that’s what you respect about him.
“He realizes how much everybody has to have a contribution.”
Felix Hernandez cites a homer he surrendered last year to Cruz at Safeco as proof the park won’t easily contain his new teammate.
“The line drive to left?” Hernandez recalled. “Geezus … Does he have enough power to play at Safeco Field? Easy. I think he’s got three against me at Safeco. One to center field.”
The general view, nonetheless, is Cruz’s power will suffer by no longer playing his home games in cozy Camden Yards, even though he hit 25 of his 40 homers last season on the road.
Further, ESPN plotted each of 15 of his Baltimore homers and determined all would have cleared the walls at Safeco Field.
But let’s concede the point, for argument’s sake, that Cruz benefited the past six seasons —the span that covers his time as a regular in the lineup — by playing in two hitter-friendly home parks: Texas and Baltimore.
Consider then only his road numbers over those past six years: a .256/.312/.478 slash (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage).
The Mariners will take that. They got .190/.266/.301 last year from their designated hitters.
Project Cruz’s road power numbers from that same span over a full season, and the result is 26 homers and 80 RBIs.
The Mariners will take that, too, after getting a combined 15 and 50 from last year’s DHs.
“This guy’s track record, addresses what we needed most: Having a true cleanup hitter,” McClendon said. “I can tell you what it means to our club. It adds validity. It extends our lineup, and it protects Robby.
“And it gives Seager more opportunities. A true No. 4 makes your lineup better all around.”
Some scouts believe Cruz will reap the biggest benefit as a right-handed batter positioned between two potent lefty bats in Cano and Seager.
“There might not be a better spot for a right-handed hitter in any lineup anywhere,” said a scout from an opposing team. “Remember Minnesota a couple of years ago when Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau were really good?
“They put Michael Cuddyer between them, and he became a star (32 home runs in 2009). Nelson Cruz is already a star. I think all three of those guys (Cano, Cruz and Seager) are going to have big years.”
Ask Cruz about his spot in the lineup, and he shrugs.
“In the end it’s going to be you,” he said. “You have to make the adjustments. You have to make the pitcher throw the right pitches.”
Even so, he looks at a the Mariners’ new-look attack, which also now includes veterans Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano, and sees reason for optimism.
“I think what we have should be enough to complete the goal,” Cruz said. “I’m excited about our pitching. We have great pitching. The offense that we have should be enough.”
The Boomstick bolsters another element previously in short supply throughout the Mariners’ roster. He logged postseason time in four of the past five years — and excelled under the spotlight.
Cruz has 16 homers in 41 postseason games along with a .292/.347/.669 slash (.669 slugging!). Only eight players have hit more postseason homers, and all eight have each played at least 24 more games.
“The playoffs — it’s everything,” he said. “That what I work for. All season, everything I do is with that mindset — go to the playoffs. Be ready for that situation.”
McClendon has seen Cruz in that be-ready condition. McClendon was the hitting coach for Detroit in 2011 when Cruz nearly single-handedly carried Texas to victory in the American League Championship Series.
Cruz hit six homers and had 13 RBIs in the six-game series.
“I’ve seen what this guy can do in big games,” McClendon said. “Now, I just want to see him do it against somebody else.”
That year, 2011, didn’t end well for Cruz. He and the Rangers were within one strike of winning the World Series in six games against St. Louis.
Cruz hit a homer in that game, what could have been the clinching game, but is generally remembered for failing to make a two-out catch in the ninth inning that would have secured the Rangers’ title.
A drive by David Freese got over Cruz’s head for a two-run triple that forced extra innings. The Cardinals won the game when Freese homered against Mark Lowe, now back in the Mairners’organization, in the 11th inning.
St. Louis won the Series the following night.
And, yes, Freese’s triple still haunts Cruz.
He craves the chance for redemption.
“Oh, no doubt,” he said. “I carry that with me. I want to win. Until I get that done, it’s going to be there. Once you’re there (in the World Series), you want to be there every year.
“That’s why I made the decision to come here and be part of this.”