Twins slugger Nelson Cruz did a lot of damage against the Yankees this season, going 6-for-23 with five home runs, seven RBI and seven runs scored in six games.
The free-agent addition has been one of the most important players on this club, and it’s extremely good news the Twins have a club option on the designated hitter for next season, which they will surely pick up for $12 million.
His presence in the best-of-five American League Divisional Series, which starts Friday at Yankee Stadium, cannot be overstated.
Cruz is one of the few Twins players with a great deal of playoff experience, batting .292 with 16 homers and 34 RBI in 41 postseason games. He was part of back-to-back World Series runs with the Rangers, losing to the Giants in 2010 and the Cardinals in 2011. He was MVP of the 2011 American League Championship Series against the Tigers.
The Rangers topped the Yankees in the 2010 ALCS, and Cruz hit .350 with two homers, three doubles, five RBI and six runs scored in that series.
Cruz said he thought postseason runs would always be that easy. But now that he is 39, and only been to the playoffs twice since 2011, he said his message to the team is to take full advantage of this opportunity.
“Definitely these opportunities don’t come every day or every year,” Cruz said. “I went back-to-back to two World Series and I thought, ‘That’s easy. I’ll be back every year.’ I mean eight years later, I’m still hoping for one chance to get there. Definitely you have to take advantage of every chance you get.
“But we are prepared. I think we all know the stage is going to be big. But we are prepared for that. We just have to take care of ourselves and make sure we do what we do, working on whatever you do to prepare for that game. We know it’s going to be huge. The adrenaline is going to take off, too. It’s going to be fun.”
Historic road team
The Twins finished 55-26 away from Target Field this season, tied for the third-most road victories in MLB history and easily the best mark in franchise history.
Cruz said sometimes you can’t explain why a team performs so well on the road, but he thinks the club’s chemistry is as good as he has seen in his 15 major league seasons.
“I think we like hotels,” he joked. “We play good when we go to hotels. We rest good, I guess. I don’t know. Who can explain this stuff? Baseball happens and you have no explanation. It’s one of those.
“We definitely get along pretty good as teammates. We make sure we stay connected. When we’re on the road, either we go to dinner or one of my teammates’ rooms and we have a good time. It’s not only about the relationship we have on the field. Outside the field, definitely we get along pretty good. That chemistry shows up on the field. We carry each other and we take care of each other.”
Cruz has played 46 games at the new Yankee Stadium, hitting .238 with 10 home runs, eight doubles and 24 RBI. He said he doesn’t really care about the Twins’ lack of success there in the past.
“History is in the past. What we’re focused on is what we do right now,” Cruz said. “I don’t think any of us players were in those games. We just have to take care of what we can control. We believe in the team that we have. We know what we can do as a team. At the end of the day, it’s between the lines. We have to take care of stuff.”
Home run series?
Cruz is excited the series features the two most potent home run-hitting teams in baseball history, with the Twins hitting 307 and the Yankees 306 this season.
Cruz hit his 400th career home run this season and beginning in 2009, he has hit more home runs than anyone in baseball with 379. The next closest player is Yankees DH Edwin Encarnacion — who has not played since Sept. 12 because of a left oblique strain but intends to play Friday — with 348.
“It’s going to be fun. I can’t wait to get to that point [of playing the games],” Cruz said. “You have to be prepared for this. Even before I signed, every year when I’m working in the offseason, my mind-set is that that moment is going to come, and make sure you’re ready for the moment.
“I have been working in spring training, during the season, just to get to this point. It’s definitely exciting. Probably the first at-bat is going to be the more difficult one. But after that, it’s another game.”
Turning point for U
Last year’s Gophers football season turned around after their 55-31 loss at Illinois, which moved them to 4-5 overall and 1-5 in the Big Ten. They won three of their next four games, beating Purdue, Wisconsin and Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl.
The Gophers will face the Illini at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday as 14-point favorites. They are 4-0, with a real chance to get to 8-0 this season. After Illinois they face Nebraska (3-2) at home, Rutgers (1-3) on the road and Maryland (2-2) at home before their schedule gets tougher, starting with Penn State at home on Nov. 9.
Still, Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said he’s not using last year as motivation.
“This year is a different year. This year has nothing to do with last year,” he said. “We learned a lot over the course of the year, not only about our football team but our players individually. This is a one-game season. That is all we’re focused on.
“They have a really good football team, a lot of playmakers. It’s homecoming this week for a lot of our alum and we’re excited to get them back. We’re focused on being better today than we were yesterday, period.”
When asked about the chance to continue an undefeated season, Fleck said he has told the players they can’t be focused on their previous victories.
“We look at ourselves as 0-0. We’re going to play a one-game season,” Fleck said. “We consider it a championship season against Illinois, at home, at TCF Bank Stadium for homecoming. That is our only focus.”
Fleck is excited that quarterback Tanner Morgan — who won the Big Ten offensive player of the week award after completing 21 of 22 passes (95%) for 396 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-31 victory over Purdue last Saturday — is still looking to improve.
“The completion percentage was the greatest performance in the history of our conference,” Fleck said. “I would say that’s really good. But the first thing he says coming off the field is, ‘I have to be better.’ That’s the type of young man he is. He feels like that game being that close, he has to find a way to make sure it’s not that close. He’s constantly self-evaluating, which is a true sign of a winner.”