ANAHEIM, Calif. – Many years ago, earlier in his career, Nelson Cruz learned a valuable lesson about dealing with a slump at the plate.
“I used to have a coach who said if you don’t hit, you better play defense,” Cruz said.
He immediately laughed, recognizing the folly of that philosophy for a full-time designated hitter.
“So, if I don’t hit,” Cruz continued, “I better do something good.”
These days, that means doing good for others on the roster. Cruz may not be producing much as the Nationals’ DH – he ended the weekend batting a paltry .157 with three homers, 14 RBIs and a .495 OPS – but that doesn’t mean he isn’t still making a difference for others.
“Nelson does it all the time,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Forget about what his numbers are. What he’s brought to our clubhouse, his leadership, and in-game in the dugout, he’s been awesome.”
It’s the in-game, in the dugout part of that praise that stands out most of all. When he’s not preparing to bat himself, Cruz can regularly be found sitting next to a teammate, iPad in hand, going over that teammate’s most recent at-bat and offering insights and suggestions.
“He’ll sit down there on the iPad with a guy and talk to him about what he’s seeing, and how he’s seeing him swing,” Martinez said. “This guy’s hitting what he’s hitting, and yet he’s still in it for his teammates.”
It may sound cliché, but Cruz takes this responsibility with utmost sincerity. He’s 41 years old, in his 18th big league season, having just tied Carl Yastrzemski for 39th on the all-time leaderboard with his 452nd career home run. He very much wants to keep adding to that total, and he’s working on his swing in attempt to do just that. But in the meantime, he’s going to impart any and all wisdom he has on others with far less experience.
He’s not trying to step on anyone’s toes, certainly not hitting coach Darnell Coles or his assistant Pat Roessler. But as other players acknowledge, there is a difference between a coach offering suggestions and a teammate who just faced the same pitcher they’re about to face.
“For me, it’s been awesome having him around,” said 26-year-old outfielder Lane Thomas, who was nine when Cruz made his major league debut for the Brewers in 2005. “A guy that’s played that long and had such a great career, to give you advice right after something happens, it’s pretty cool. You relate to the player more. Because they’re going through what you’re going through at the same time.”
The Nationals signed Cruz as spring training was about to commence for a guaranteed $15 million, believing he still had plenty of pop in his bat and could serve as some much-needed lineup protection for Juan Soto, with Josh Bell hitting behind him.
Instead, though, it’s Bell who has begun regularly batting third behind Soto, with Cruz still hanging onto the cleanup spot for now despite his lack of production.
During their just-completed, 4-5 road trip, the Nats did see their once-sleepy lineup begin to produce, averaging 6.4 runs per game. But aside from one home run during Saturday night’s win over the Angels, Cruz’s contributions have mostly come off the field.
“My job is not only hitting,” he said. “I have to support my teammates. I have to be a cheerleader there and stay positive. Anything I can see from my hitting group, I try to help them. I have more jobs besides hitting. If my job was only hitting, it would be miserable.”
That’s how Cruz has been able to stay upbeat through a difficult opening month to the season. He also knows, though, he eventually needs to start making a difference on the scoreboard.
“It’s part of the process,” he said. “I believe in what I’m doing. At some point, everything will come up and it will be the way I want it.”