At the height of the party in Arlington, Texas, when the confetti was swirling and the trophies were being distributed and the partiers were chanting "Cr-o-o-o-o-z," Ron Washington, manager of the Texas Rangers, was asked about the MVP of the American League Championship Series.
Washington leaned into the microphone, in front of all of those people, and said, "I'm very happy. I'll tell you what, if I did, I'd probably throw him breaking balls."
And you wonder at that moment how many Detroit Tigers pitchers slapped their foreheads, particularly the ones who threw Nelson Cruz fastballs.
Because, yeah, Cruz had just finished one of the great playoff series in history, dropping six home runs, 13 RBIs and a .364 batting average on the Tigers in six games.
The man dominated the series without ever hitting a single. He had eight hits; the other two were doubles.
Batting out of the seven hole, no less.
This, coming out of a series against the Tampa Bay Rays in which he had exactly one hit – a single – in 15 at-bats.
In the course of two series, a few off days really, Cruz went from no factor to the most productive player on the field.
So, what happened?
Middle-in happened. Fastballs happened. And home runs came. Loud ones. Game changers. Series definers.
Unlike the Rays, who stayed as far from the inner-half of the plate as possible, the Tigers threw inside strike after inside strike to Cruz, the majority of them, as Washington noted, fastballs.
Over four games in the division series, Cruz saw eight inside strikes. In the ALCS, 33.
So lies the challenge for the St. Louis Cardinals, who've got enough to deal with in the World Series without Cruz staying hot. While there's no perfect way to pitch a hitter as talented and comfortable as Cruz is, the Cardinals figure to break down exactly how the Tigers went after him. And do the opposite. First, to approach it any other way would be World Series suicide. Second, the Cardinals – and pitching coach Dave Duncan – are all about down and away. Inside pitches generally are for show, and to open up the outer half for outs.
According to a scout who has watched Cruz for years, the objective against Cruz is indeed to start him hard in, but not for strikes, and then finish him away. Granted, that's the scouting report on most hitters. But, then, most hitters aren't going to turn the occasional mistake into six home runs and two doubles in a week.
"He's always going to be a guy who wants to pull the ball and hit it a million miles," the scout said. "And I don't think you can throw it hard enough in there to beat him. If Justin Verlander(notes) can't, no one can."
Cruz got Verlander twice.
The first was on a 93-mph fastball, inner half, after two fastballs away. The second was on a 100-mph fastball, again on the inner half, again after two fastballs away. Cruz hit the foul pole with that one.
Here's the thing: Tigers starters Verlander, Rick Porcello(notes), Doug Fister(notes) and Max Scherzer(notes) are right-handers who can have some two-seam run on their fastballs. Those pitches ride into right-handed hitters. It's possible they didn't intend those fastballs to come in on Cruz. But, as we know now, they did.
Sometimes, it's ego. Yeah, he can hit a fastball, but he's never seen my fastball. Sometimes, the thought process goes afoul. I know he can hit an inside fastball, he knows I know he can hit an inside fastball, so I'm throwing the inside fastball.
At the very end of Verlander's Game 5 start, the one that dragged the series to Texas for Game 6, the Tigers ace loaded up and came inside on Cruz. It was the last pitch he'd throw. And when the ball struck the foul pole, Verlander turned and grinned.
Ego. Tangled by thought process.
"The pitch before, I blew one by him," Verlander said. "And then challenge him again. Made a mistake. … Go look at all the home runs he's hit this series. I say all of them, because he's hit a few of them, and that's about the spot that he's hit them.
"And really, I out-thunk myself. I thought I made him look foolish on a couple of curveballs earlier in the game. Here I am – 0-and-2 – he might be sitting on another one. So, I'm playing that guessing game with him. … Tried to sneak one by him and he was ready for it. That's in the air, it's, 'Please go foul. Please go foul. I'm such an idiot, please go foul.' It didn't."
No, generally, they didn't.
On 15 shots at Cruz, the Rays got him out away – any pitch, really – and with elevated fastballs. That's the Cardinals' challenge, starting with Chris Carpenter on Wednesday night in Game 1 in St. Louis. Go away. Go up. Don't go in. And, you know, as Washington said, "Throw him breaking balls."
That easy. Right?
"He scares you," said the scout, "because he'll sit soft once in a while. Actually, he gets locked in, seeing it good, he hits breaking balls and fastballs."
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