Bonus points for foresight for the Baltimore Orioles management team. How else can you explain the wisdom of acquiring Nelson Cruz following his stint with the Texas Rangers just in time for him to produce his finest season at bat? And how else can you explain the timeliness of having Cruz waiting in the wings just as Chris Davis goes into a season-long hitting funk?
Entering Tuesday’s play the Orioles are running away with the American League East Division, cruising with a 10-game lead in the standings. They would not be where they are without Cruz’s bat.
A year ago Davis was the breakout star of the sport. He finished with 53 home runs and 138 runs batted in, both good enough to lead the American League, and he batted .286, even though he did strike out 199 times.
Flash forward to this season and Davis has 26 home runs and 72 RBIs – not bad – but he is hitting an unsightly .195 with 168 strikeouts in 125 games. To some degree he has lost his touch and one of the late-season watches for cynics is to see if he can possibly uplift his average to .200 before the end of the regular season.
Yet despite Davis’ woes, the Orioles are running away with their division. Cruz has belted 39 home runs, the most in the majors, and is right up there amongst the RBI leaders with a total of 101. Both of those marks are career bests. His average is a so-so .264, but that isn’t a problem given his power numbers. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound right-handed swinger has owned right field for Baltimore.
Previously, the most homers Cruz hit in a season was 33 in 2009. And previously his best RBI season was 90 in 2012. By most measurements, Cruz is this year’s Davis. Cruz signed as a free agent with the Orioles last February, which means he was not a costly get in terms of surrendering other players.
He was expensive enough in terms of cash, though, with a one-year deal at $8 million. The Orioles might want Cruz to stick around longer than 2014, but there is plenty of baseball still to be played before that decision is made.
Interestingly, Cruz began the season as the hottest hitter in baseball, levelled off during the hottest months, and as the Orioles salt away this division title, he is once again on fire. This generation of Oriole players is new to playing for lofty stakes. It has been a long time since Earl Weaver was managing and Brooks and Frank Robinson were playing and Jim Palmer was pitching.
Baltimore fans waited a long, long time to support a winner again, and in this season where there is no dominant team in the majors, the Orioles can wrap up September and head into October baseball thinking that they have as fine a chance as any other team to make a run at a World Series crown.
In Baltimore, there is no reason to sneer at the phrase, “Why not us?”
Even juicier, it is not impossible to envision an All-Beltway World Series with the Orioles facing the Washington Nationals. President Barack Obama could throw out the first pitch at both teams’ home parks without his motorcade driving out of his way.