Cruz running out of time to return from eye infection

Nelson Cruz last appeared in a game for the Nationals in the third inning of their Sept. 13 game against the Orioles. The 42-year-old designated hitter reached on catcher’s interference, then two innings later was pulled in favor of pinch-hitter Josh Palacios due to an infection in his left eye that left his vision blurry.

That was 18 days ago, and not much has changed since then with regards to Cruz’s status. His vision has improved enough to take batting practice and even field some grounders at first base. But it has not improved enough to make the Nationals comfortable sending him to the plate to face a pitcher in an actual game.

And now that the season is winding down, with the team’s home finale scheduled Sunday, there’s legitimate concern Cruz may be running out of time to make it back before the 2022 campaign ends.

“Yeah, I am worried,” manager Davey Martinez said this morning. “Yesterday, he said he felt a lot better. And then throughout the day, it reverted back. But earlier on, he said he felt great. I hope that within the next day or so, maybe he can get out there. Even if he can pinch-hit one game for us or something like that, it would be great. But we’re still hoping he can get back out there and finish on the field.”

It had already been a difficult season for Cruz before the eye infection became an issue. Signed at the start of spring training for $15 million, the veteran slugger was supposed to provide lineup protection for Juan Soto and Josh Bell, mentor young teammates and potentially be flipped at the trade deadline for a prospect or two.

But aside from a couple of brief spurts along the way, Cruz hasn’t come close to producing at the level he consistently displayed for more than a decade. He’s been stuck on a .234/.313/.337 slash line for weeks, with only 10 homers and 64 RBIs (though that last figure still leads the Nationals).

Martinez mostly stuck with Cruz in the heart of his daily lineup through it all, giving him sporadic days off only when he was dealing with a nagging ailment. His absence the last 2 1/2 weeks has allowed Luke Voit to assume everyday DH duties and Joey Meneses to take over at first base, which has mostly been a positive for the team.

But with only six games left on the schedule (only two days left on the home schedule) and Cruz facing an uncertain future beyond that, Martinez is still holding out hope there might be at least one opportunity for a pinch-hit appearance in the coming days.

“He was so important to our organization this year, as far as helping develop our kids. A great teammate in our clubhouse,” the manager said. “And finishing up this year, I don’t know what his plans are for next year, even though he says he wants to play. But I want him to finish up this year on the field. I think everybody deserves to finish up on the field.”

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