Cruz, the toast of town in LA, gets his curtain call
LOS ANGELES -- It might not carry the full-blown impact of Fernandomania in 1981, a once-a-lifetime experience, but the love affair of Luis Cruz and this city is real. And it seems to be getting better every day.
The familiar "Cruuuuuuuuz!" chant rocked Dodger Stadium on Friday night when the Dodgers' third baseman lifted a split-fingered fastball by Edward Mujica into the seats in the left-field corner in the sixth inning, turning a one-run deficit into a two-run lead en route to an 8-5 victory over the Cardinals.
Summoned for a curtain call by the 40,167 exultant fans, Cruz obliged, stepping out of the dugout with a winning smile.
"I didn't know what to do," Cruz said. "I was excited. Everyone was hugging me in the dugout. I've seen it a lot of times on TV. I wanted to enjoy it one time."
Given how the locals have taken to the versatile athlete from Navajoa, Sonora, Mexico -- Fernando Valenzuela's old turf -- Cruz likely will be asked for another curtain call or two before it's over.
No longer in a slumber with the lumber, the Dodgers moved to within one game of St. Louis for the second National League Wild Card spot by scoring more runs than they had since Aug. 29, a span of 13 games.
"It's all about Cruz," Matt Kemp said on his way out of the clubhouse. "He's got a lot of big hits for us. If it wasn't for him, we probably wouldn't be in the position we're in."
Cruz is hitting .298 in 61 games. The homer was his fifth, and he has driven in 34 runs while putting together .437 slugging and .330 on-base percentages. He has been clutch, indeed, hitting .351 in 57 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
"It's like a dream come true for me," Cruz, 28, said. "I spent 12 years in the Minors, and now I want to take advantage of the opportunity they have given me. I come every day to play 100 percent and have fun."
It's that back story, the long struggle and the will to persevere, that no doubt resonates with fans.
"The first time I heard it, I thought, `Did I do something wrong?'" Cruz said.
The reaction to Cruz was immediate in early July after he drove in runs in his first four games as a Dodger. The infatuation has gathered momentum as he keeps producing under fire.
"He's shown he can play here, and I think people like to see that," veteran outfielder Bobby Abreu said. "He's been holding the team up a lot with his bat, and he's a pretty good defensive player.
"He's got power, and he's got a good approach at the plate. It's good to see a guy like that finally get a chance and show everybody what he can do."
The game is in his blood. Cruz couldn't walk away even though he'd played only 56 games at the Major League level -- 49 with the Pirates, seven with the Brewers -- before this season since breaking in with the Boston organization in 2001.
He has played for 11 Minor League teams. One of his best seasons was 2004 with the Padres' Lake Elsinore Storm affiliate in the California League.
"I never quit," Cruz said. "My dad, family and my wife support me. I'm here, and I'm very happy. Maybe I can stay here awhile."
Cruz's father, Luis Sr., was a slugging center fielder in the Mexican Pacific League for 18 seasons and is a hitting coach in the Mexican Winter League. His grandfather was a first baseman.
"My mother's dad played, too," Cruz said. "It's on both sides of my family."
Representing Mexico, Cruz played alongside Adrian Gonzalez's brother, Edgar, in the 2006 Caribbean Series in Venezuela, banging a pair of homers in the first game of the series.
His focus now is on bigger game with Adrian his teammate, across the diamond.
"The biggest thing about tonight is we scored some runs and played the game right," Cruz said, having delivered the first run in the second inning against Cards starter Joe Kelly on a ground ball following Gonzalez's leadoff double.
"We got Adrian on with the double, Hanley [Ramirez] moved him up [on a sprawling play at first by Allen Craig], and we got the run in," Cruz said. "That got us started."
Do the little things right, and the big things tend to follow. Andre Ethier launched a two-run homer in the third inning, shaving a lead the Cards had forged against Chris Capuano with homers by Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter and Matt Holliday.
Kelly was gone when the decisive rally developed in the sixth. Ethier led off with a single, and with two away, Ramirez was hit by a Trevor Rosenthal pitch.
Mujica, who'd shown Cruz "three splitties" in Thursday night's Cardinals victory, came on, and Cruz was determined to "relax and stop jumping at the ball."
But when Mujica left another split in a favorable location, Cruz couldn't resist. He wheeled on it, and the big crowd erupted.
"It was crazy," Cruz said. "I told myself to relax and take a pitch. But I saw it hanging there ... and I hit it."
The curtain call was his first on U.S. soil.
"I had [one] in Mexican winter ball," he said, beaming, "but this feels better."
Cruz control. It's the only way to go in L.A. these days.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.