For all the home runs Nelson Cruz has hit in his three seasons in Minnesota, none had ever ended a game. In fact, Cruz has hit 350 home runs over the past 11 seasons, and only one, back in 2017 while with the Mariners, had been a walk-off winner.
Which is why the Twins' 40-year-old slugger, whose first four career walk-off homers all came in 2010 or earlier, couldn't recall a more dramatic regular-season finish than the one he provided on Friday. His first-pitch two-run homer, off six-time All-Star Aroldis Chapman, completed the Twins' four-run ninth-inning rally to a 7-5 victory over the Yankees.
"It's hard in any situation against [Chapman]," Cruz said. "It's hard to score runs. He's definitely as tough as it comes."
But Chapman, uncharacteristically, was reeling when Cruz stepped in, having given up a single to Jorge Polanco, a game-tying upper-deck home run to Josh Donaldson, and a pinch-hit single to Willians Astudillo, all in just eight pitches. Did Cruz sense this was his moment to go deep, too?
"No, I was just looking for something I could drive. I haven't necessarily been hitting homers. I've been hitting a lot of line drives lately," Cruz said. Indeed, the blast into the juniper vines in center field ended a 12-game homer-free streak, his longest as a Twin. "I guess my approach has changed to stay more on top of the ball. It was nice to see the ball run."
Especially after two mostly lopsided losses to the Yankees, the Twins' annual tormentors. Cruz's teammates doused him with a water bucket — "It was nice. A cold bath always helps when the weather is that hot," Cruz said of the 90-degree temperatures — and in the clubhouse, starter J.A. Happ was going nuts with the Twins' staff.
"Some of the staff was in there [watching on TV] and a few of the players. It was fun to watch unfold, it really was," Happ said. "We were screaming plenty."
As is typically the case for an underachieving team after an unexpected win, the discussion afterward was about whether this changes things for the Twins.
Their manager sure hopes so.
"These types of games and these wins, they do a lot for the team. They teach individual players lessons about the game and how these things go and what you need to do to win," Rocco Baldelli said. "You have to find a way. You have to find different streets to go down, and you've got to find ways to do positive things."
Especially when you're just 3-6 in June, like the Twins.
"Winning is not always pretty. We say that, but sometimes it can be eight innings that don't exactly look the way you want it to look, but you hang in there," Baldelli said. "You shut the other team down, you score an extra run, you stay close, and then you give yourself a chance to win a game, which is the way it played out tonight."
Maybe the future is brighter than it looks, Cruz suggested, because reinforcements may be arriving soon.
"It's nice, because we can have [Luis] Arraez, [Max] Kepler, [Byron] Buxton, even [Jake] Cave back," Cruz said. "It'll be nice to have those guys back. They a huge part of our lineup, key for us as an offense."
And maybe it's worth noting that the Yankees have pulled off similar stunning wins against the Twins not so long ago. On April 26, 2018, New York trailed 3-1 in in the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium, but their first two hitters reached base against Fernando Rodney, and Gary Sanchez crushed a long game-winning home run.
The Yankees celebrated that shocker — then won 11 of their next 12 games.
Can the Twins do the same? Was this a turnaround?
"We certainly hope so," said Happ, who was a Yankee back then. "We don't talk about it too much amongst ourselves because it's not a fun conversation to have. We're just trying to show up and grind every day. I felt like we were in the game and we had a chance. And today, we came up huge."