Nelson Cruz was asked Friday night, upon the occasion of his 387th career home run, whether he had thought much about reaching 400.
He must have misunderstood the question. Nobody was asking him to get there this weekend.
But Cruz, who until July 25 in Chicago had never belted three homers in a game, on Saturday became just the second player in more than a decade to do it twice in the same year. Cruz — already the most homer-iffic DH in Twins history — launched three more rockets into the Target Field seats, left Johnny Bench in his long-ball wake, and powered his team to its fifth victory in six games, 11-3 over the Royals. The Twins’ AL Central lead over Cleveland, which beat the Angels, remains at three games.
On a team poised to shatter baseball’s all-time home run record about a month from now, it’s not easy to stand out with power hitting, but Cruz has done it with one of the most blistering hot streaks in franchise history. In his past 11 starts, Cruz has crushed 12 home runs, driven in 24 runs, and batted .455, with an absurd 1.341 slugging percentage.
“You might watch baseball for a very, very long time and not see another [streak] at the plate like he’s having right now,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “It’s moment after moment of impacting the baseball, driving it out of the ballpark and doing it with a big smile on his face. It’s been pretty cool.”
Sure, if you’re managing the 1927 Yankees, or the 2019 Twins. Now imagine what it looks like from the other dugout.
“They’re not very forgiving. Nelson Cruz is swinging the bat really well — I mean, he’s not missing,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “You throw something that’s got a little too much of the plate, and he’s going to ride it.”
He’s not the only one, of course. C.J. Cron, just back from the injured list, and Jorge Polanco connected on Saturday, too. But Cruz’s performance was the one that the 36,823 in attendance will be talking about for years to come.
The fireworks show started with an excuse-me, opposite-field first-inning fly ball that drifted just inside the right field foul pole.
“When I’m going good, that’s part of the field I [use] normally,” Cruz said of the 365-foot homer.
If that one was unremarkable by his standards, though, Cruz made amends an inning later with his longest Target Field lightning bolt of the season, a majestic 466-foot launch into the third deck in left field. And in the sixth inning, Cruz reached history — and passed Bench, a Hall of Famer, for No. 63 on the career homer list — with another opposite-field deposit.
Only nine Twins have ever hit three homers in a game, three of them twice, but none had ever done it twice in a season. In fact, it’s happened only 23 times before, and Boston’s Mookie Betts (who did it in both 2016 and 2018) and Cruz are the only ones to achieve the feat since 2006.
“I was asking after his third one, ‘Do we just celebrate every single time, or do we just treat this as a normal at-bat every time, and pat him on the back a little?' ” Baldelli joked. “Yeah, he’s seeing the ball really well.”
The three-run outburst gave Cruz 390 career homers, and 30 for the season, a familiar milestone for him — he’s reached it for six consecutive seasons — but a breath-taking elevation for the Twins, who had never had a DH pile up so many. Chili Davis’ 29 homers in 1991 had stood as the most by a designated hitter in Twins history, until Cruz’s arrival.
With 215 homers as a team, the Twins will surpass their franchise record for homers in a season, 225 by the 1963 team, during this homestand.
“One at-bat at a time, you know,” Cruz cautioned. “What happened yesterday, what happened today, is over. Tomorrow is a new game.”
All the numbers, all the homers seemed to overwhelm Royals starter Danny Duffy, who allowed as many home runs Saturday as in his five previous starts. The lefthander allowed eight hits over 4 2/3 innings, but when four of them leave the park, it’s going to add up. The damage: nine runs, a season high.
Kyle Gibson, meanwhile, had few problems in earning his fourth consecutive victory. He got caught up in long-ball fever, too, when Jorge Soler crushed the night’s most towering shot, a 465-foot third-deck blast to left. But Gibson quickly settled down, retired 13 consecutive batters, and left after giving up four hits and three runs over 6⅔ innings.