Cruz comes through when it counts

Cruz comes through when it counts

ARLINGTON -- Perhaps we'll never know how close young Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz was to being handed his ticket to Oklahoma.

Perhaps his walk-off home run in Sunday's 7-6 victory over the Angels will prove to be the start of something big, the critical turning point for which his manager, coaches and teammates have been waiting.

"This was big for him," Rangers shortstop Michael Young said. "Maybe this will get him going."

It certainly might. Cruz broke a 6-6 tie and gave the Rangers their first victory of the season over their division-leading rivals by driving an 0-1 slider from reliever Scot Shields over the right-field fence. Cruz's blast ended the game with one out in the bottom of the ninth, giving the Rangers' their first walk-off win since Phil Nevin homered to beat Oakland last May 25.

The deep drive ended a slugfest that saw the teams combine for eight home runs. Angels center fielder Gary Matthews Jr. punished his former team with two homers, one from each side of the plate.

But Cruz's blast was more than the standard game-winning hit. It was one swing of the bat that might have salvaged Cruz's season, just in the nick of time.

Cruz came to the plate in the ninth with only one hit in his last 26 at-bats, a slide that sent his batting average from .246 to .184. He had not driven in a run since April 21. The home run was the first of the season by a player who routinely slugs them in batting practice before looking lost and overmatched in recent games.

"He has incredible power," Young said. "We see that kind of stuff all the time in batting practice. Once he kind of gets his swing down in the games, we'll see a lot more of it."

By all accounts, Cruz is a hard worker, one who logs extra time with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo several hours before games hoping to unlock his wealth of talent. But a costly throwing error in Saturday's 6-3 loss, coupled with his recent lack of production, had made him a pregame topic of conversation.

The question: Was it time to send Cruz down to straighten out his game in the Minors before his confidence hit a dangerous low?

"He's not doing everything," Rangers manager Ron Washington conceded before Sunday's game. "He's not making solid contact. He's overdoing it on the defensive end. He's trying to find himself, and he's just trying to do too much."

Asked whether the organization was considering demoting Cruz, Washington said: "We haven't went there yet."

But the implication was clear, especially since pitcher Kevin Millwood and DH-outfielder Frank Catalanotto are to come off the disabled list in the next two days.

Right-hander Mike Wood was expected to be sent down to make room for Millwood on Monday, and Wood's performance in Sunday's start (five runs -- four earned -- on seven hits in four innings) did nothing to change that. Wood is 0-1 with a 7.02 ERA after three starts.

Outfielder Victor Diaz (.211) was the likely player going down when Catalanotto is activated Tuesday. But Diaz had one homer and four RBIs in 19 at-bats, while Cruz had no homers and six RBIs through 87 at-bats. Perhaps there was some wriggle room for the front office?

"We never had [Cruz] in a precarious situation," Washington said after the game. "You all did."

That may be the case, but Washington said before the game that "sometimes you have to take a step backward to go forward." And after Cruz struck out in two of his first three at-bats Sunday, the 26-year-old's direction seemed locked in reverse.

When he came up in the bottom of the ninth, Cruz was a career .207 hitter with six homers and 28 RBIs through his first 222 Major League at-bats. The anointed right fielder, acquired as a key component of last July's six-player trade that also brought Carlos Lee from Milwaukee, was struggling to hold up his end of the bargain.

"He has some great skills, but it's just not coming together the way we want it," Washington said before the game. "And with the team not playing as well as we'd like, his little inconsistencies are getting exposed a little more. All the teaching is going on every single day. But, at some point, you've got to take responsibility for yourself."

Finally, Cruz did. Facing a tough pitcher in Shields, who owned a 2.15 career ERA in 38 appearances against Texas, Cruz took a first-pitch slider on the outside corner for a strike and then was waiting for the same pitch again.

"They had been working me outside," Cruz said. "The first pitch was a breaking pitch away, so I thought that was going to be their plan against me."

It was, but Shields said the second pitch was poorly executed.

"It was a slider outside, maybe left a little bit up," Shields said. "I'm OK with that pitch 95 percent of the time. It was a good piece of hitting. It's frustrating. I throw the pitch I wanted, and he got it. He hit it hard and won the game for them. I tip my hat to him."

So did Cruz's manager. Washington was effusive in his praise after the game.

"It was very nice for Nelson," Washington said. "Maybe this can get him going. I'm very happy for him. He's been battling, and it was nice that he did that. I knew that with one swing of the bat, he could do what he did. Even struggling, he could still run into something."

However, Washington also admitted that if Gerald Laird had reached base instead of grounding out to lead off the ninth, Cruz would have been ordered to bunt. Instead, the outfielder got to take a swing that might have saved his big-league service time.

"It was tough," Cruz said of his recent slump, "but I don't think I lost confidence. I've been keeping up working with Rudy, and there's no doubt about it -- I know I can hit."

Even with Catalanotto's imminent return, Cruz said he hadn't considered that he might be in danger of demotion.

"No, I don't think that," he said. "I don't want to worry about something I don't know is going to happen."

Ken Daley is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.