Cruz thrust into spotlight for Rangers

Josh Hamilton injury puts Texas Rangers Nelson Cruz in spotlight

David Murphy was the new left fielder. For one day, at least, Michael Young was the new No. 3 hitter.

But Nelson Cruz is the man who must replace Josh Hamilton.

The Texas Rangers are the defending American League champions. They are first in the AL with a record of 10-3. But now they are without the sluggers who finished 1-2 on the team in RBI last year: Vladimir Guerrero, who signed with the Baltimore Orioles, and Hamilton, who could miss up to two months with a non-displaced fracture in his right shoulder.

The run production will need to pick up elsewhere, and Cruz’s bat is the most logical place. He led the league with five home runs entering the Rangers’ weekend series at Yankee Stadium. Still, his fame hasn’t quite caught up to his ability. Prior to Hamilton’s injury, he usually was batting sixth. Much like Toronto’s Jose Bautista, Cruz is a star player who blossomed late.

“God blessed me,” Cruz said this week. “I was almost out of baseball. I was put on waivers (in 2008), and nobody picked me up. Going to Japan was on my mind. But the Rangers kept me.”

They are glad they did. His home runs tend to be timely (a major-league-record-tying five in extra innings last year) and long. During the Rangers’ season-opening sweep of the Red Sox, Cruz walloped a Clay Buchholz fastball into the upper deck in right-center at Rangers Ballpark.

Yes, the opposite field. It’s almost impossible for a right-handed batter to do that. Eric Nadel, the Rangers’ revered radio voice, has seen it twice in the stadium’s 17-year history.

“An incredible talent,” praised Young.

“Right up there with the best in the league,” Rangers reliever Darren O’Day said.

“The guy’s got serious pop,” Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge marveled. “Serious pop.”

Cruz, 30, might one of the least-talked-about elite players in the game. He was an All-Star in 2009. He batted .317 during the Rangers’ World Series run last year, setting a major-league postseason record with 13 extra-base hits. I realize that record effectively covers only the wild-card era. Still, it counts for something: Cruz was, by one measure, the most prolific power hitter during a single postseason over the past 15 years.

Yet he’s never been The Guy for a contending team in the big leagues.

That is about to change.

Hamilton’s injury was odd and unlucky for any number of reasons. He hurt himself on a headfirst slide into home plate that wouldn’t have happened if (a) Detroit pitcher Brad Penny covered the plate, (b) third base coach Dave Anderson held Hamilton at third, or (c) Hamilton slid feet-first, as the Rangers taught him.

The result of the play was awful, but the timing wasn’t as terrible as you might think, because Cruz is ready for this challenge in a way he’s never been before.

You can see that in the way he runs.

A little backstory here: Cruz had an excellent 2010 season. According to the Rangers’ media guide, he became the fifth player in major-league history with at least 30 doubles, 20 home runs and 75 RBI during a season in which he appeared in 108 games or fewer.

The only problem with that statistic is that Cruz had to miss 54 games to accomplish it. If he had hit at the same clip over, say, 155 games, he would have finished with 32 home runs and 112 RBI, to go along with a .318 average. Players like that get MVP votes.

Cruz had hamstring problems that required three stays on the disabled list. The odd thing was he strained both hamstrings. Jose Vazquez, the Rangers’ strength and conditioning coach, examined why Cruz kept sustaining hamstring injuries and concluded that his running style was flawed. So the team enlisted the help of an expert who already was familiar with the team: Kyle O’Day. As in, Darren’s brother.

Kyle O’Day was a Florida high school state champion in the 800-meter relay. Now he trains world-class sprinters on running form, as the owner of Atlanta-based Continuum Sports Solutions.

Cruz won’t challenge Usain Bolt anytime soon. But good running technique is good running technique, regardless of the sport.

“Coming through the minor leagues, it’s not something that’s taught,” Darren O’Day said. “It should be, because it can lead to a lot of injuries. Obviously, it can make you faster. But it’s a tough thing to learn. It’s natural for you to take off running the way you’ve been running your whole life.”

In January, the Rangers brought Kyle O’Day to Dallas to educate six players (including All-Star Ian Kinsler) on how to improve their running style. Through the intensive workout sessions, O’Day identified three main problems with Cruz’s running style.

• He bent forward at the waist as he ran, putting unnecessary strain on his lower back and hamstrings.

• He allowed his legs to get stuck behind his body after pushing off, causing what O’Day describes as the “butt-kick effect.”

• He needed to strengthen his hips and hamstrings through targeted exercises and stretches.

“So we fixed his posture, got him to actually run instead of ‘butt-kick’ his way through runs, and slightly modified his strength training program,” Kyle O’Day wrote in an email this week. “All the work since then has been up to him. He’s clearly been putting in the necessary practice time because he looks quite a bit different than previous years.”

Most importantly, his hamstrings feel better.

“I’m straighter,” Cruz said this week. “I feel more normal. I’ve figured out the way I’m supposed to run. A little change made a huge difference. I don’t feel anything this year in my hamstrings. I figured it out.”

Good timing, too. The Rangers need his bat, now more than ever. And it takes two good hamstrings to hit a baseball 450 feet.

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