Nelson Cruz is in the lineup and batting sixth as the designated hitter for the Texas Rangers in their play-in game Monday night in Arlington, Tex.
And that’s something writers haven’t been able to say for 56 days since Cruz was suspended 50 games for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. Fifty-six days, but the expectations haven’t changed for the Ranger slugger.
“I’m expecting to see the Nellie we had before he left,” manager Ron Washington said. “If you throw something in the wrong spot, I expect to jump up and down.”
While Washington expects to have something to celebrate, he said inserting Cruz into the lineup is more about adding his presence.
“It’s the threat, it’s the presence,” he said. “It’s about what he does for everyone else in that lineup.”
And that lineup is one that has won seven consecutive games without Cruz, and 29 of the 50 in his absence, despite struggles in early September. Washington still described it as a “no-brainer” putting Cruz in the lineup Monday.
Second baseman Ian Kinsler said the team would pick up where it left off having Cruz in the heart of the order. He said the guys know Cruz and are happy to have him back. He also said his teammates understand Cruz’s situation.
“We’re a forgiving team,” Kinsler said. “Maybe some of us haven’t made mistakes on that level, but we’ve all made mistakes. We’ve been through a lot in this clubhouse.”
Cruz returns for game no. 163 of the season for the Rangers, in which they will face David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays. Cruz carries a .429 batting average and three home runs in 23 plate appearances against the Tampa Bay ace.
Price is 1-7 with a 5.57 ERA in 11 career starts against Texas, but is 6-3 with a 2.95 ERA since the All-Star Break.
He has allowed just two earned runs in each of his last four starts.
“[The Rangers players] respect David Price and they know what he can bring to the table,” Washington said. “We certainly know what he’s all about and we’re not taking him lightly. We’re ready to fight.”
Twenty-two-year-old left-hander Martin Perez will don the Ranger red and toe the rubber opposite Price Monday night. Perez is 7-2 with a 3.05 ERA since July 31, and has accumulated eight quality starts in that span.
Perez, a rookie, has not pitched in postseason play – or in a quasi-postseason 163rd game of a season. But Kinsler said the young lefty would be ready for the pressure.
“I don’t think he’s necessarily going to look at it as a ‘big stage’ type of start. I don’t think he feels like he has to put the team on his shoulders and throw nine shutout [innings], he just wants to keep us in the game and throw the ball well,” Kinsler said.
Washington said this year has been a success for Perez no matter what Monday’s outcome is.
“Tonight could be icing on the cake for him,” he said. “He’s a guy that will probably be in our rotation for years to come and he’s going to have to deal with this situation hopefully many more times.”
The winner of Monday night’s game will travel to Cleveland to play in the one-game Wild Card playoff to decide which team advances to the American League Division Series. So there’s no doubt that this game is the biggest of the season.
But when it comes to the Rangers’ approach, Alex Rios – who has never played in a postseason game – said it best.
“We’re going to focus on tonight’s game, we’re going to take advantage of every opportunity they give us,” he said. “We’re going to play ball. That’s all.”