By Jose M. Romero /@RomeroJoseM
For Fox Deportes
PHOENIX – The Los Angeles Dodgers went into the All-Star break on July 8 in first place in the NL West by the smallest of margins – half a game.
They got off to a hot start to the season, went on a horrible losing streak in late June in which they dropped 11 of 12 games, and by July 8 had their two best players, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, plus base-stealing ace/shortstop Dee Gordon on the disabled list.
But the Dodgers are at the top thanks to some solid pitching and the surprising contributions of a number of players not widely known. One is a big infielder from Navojoa, Sonora, Mexico – Luis Cruz.
“Very happy to be here,” Cruz said in Spanish. “I worked hard in the minors for 12 years and when I’m presented an opportunity like this, I have to take advantage of it.”
Cruz’s father played pro ball in Mexico, and Cruz comes from a part of the country where beisbol is big. Notable Mexicans from Sonora who went on to the big leagues in the U.S. include one of the most beloved Dodgers of all time, Fernando Valenzuela.
Cruz was a Dodger fan as a kid.
“I always liked the Dodgers when I was little and they had Fernando and everybody,” Cruz said. “A lot of Mexicans have played (for L.A.) and there’s a lot of Mexicans in Los Angeles, so I’m so thankful to have this chance.”
Cruz spent the better part of seven years in the minor leagues after signing with the Boston Red Sox as a 16-year-old in 2000. Hopes for him were high after he was dealt to the San Diego Padres organization in 2002, and Cruz even made the 2006 All-Star Futures Game World team roster.
Cruz made his major-league debut in 2008 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but never got beyond brief stints in the bigs as the years passed. When this season began, Cruz had appeared in 56 career major-league games with the Pirates and Milwaukee Brewers. He also had success in Mexico’s winter Liga Mexicana del Pacifico last year, at Culiacan.
“I started having good at-bats when I was there,” Cruz said.
Cruz opened 2012 at the Dodgers’ Class AAA team in Albuquerque. He earned a callup after batting .318 in 74 games, and because the Dodgers felt they needed to rest Gordon.
Cruz drove in a run on July 2, his first day with the Dodgers. He hit safely in his next five games, and while doing that, moved into the starting lineup.
When Gordon injured a thumb sliding into third base on July 4, guess who was moved into the primary shortstop role?
“I feel good, and I’ve been preparing for this my whole career,” Cruz said. “I feel very calm. You have to have a lot of patience.”
“He’s been pretty good,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “He was the MVP of the Mexican League. He had a great spring. He’s been killing it in Triple A. This guy’s probably as confident as you’re going to see. He’s had success, success, success. The guy’s feeling good up there (at bat). “
Mattingly said Cruz doesn’t have a whole lot of range at shortstop (Cruz is listed at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds) but he makes the play on every ball he can get to and has a very strong throwing arm.
“We’re hoping he’ll be a late bloomer, where he’s kind of figured it out, ” Mattingly said. Cruz is now 28 years old.
All good streaks end sooner or later, and Cruz saw his five-game hitting streak end Sunday in the Dodgers’ 7-1 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks. But he’s still batting .318 (7-for-22) in seven games.