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Chiba Lotte’s Cruz finding NPB easier to adjust to second time around

by

Staff Writer

Luis Alfonso Cruz Sr. has been around the block. He was a heck of a ballplayer in his day, putting together a solid 16-year career in the Mexican League — and there were chances to play in the U.S., but he stayed close to home for his family. These days, he’s a hitting coach for Tomateros de Culiacan in the Mexican Pacific League.

This past winter, before helping mentor Culiacan to the Mexican Pacific League championship, he lent his ear and experience to his son, Chiba Lotte Marines infielder Luis Cruz, who is hoping to add another Pacific League crown, this one from Japan, to the family mantle.

“He watched my games every day,” the younger Cruz recently told The Japan Times in the home dugout at QVC Marine Field. “He helped me a lot. He knows me better than anybody. We always talk about hitting. We’re very close.”

No doubt the elder Cruz has liked what he’s seen this year, with his son off to a good start to his second year in Japan. The younger Cruz was hitting .291 with eight home runs entering Tuesday’s game against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.

Cruz has been great with men on base, and had a .457 average with runners in scoring position. He also began Tuesday as the NPB leader with 34 RBIs. Cruz went over his approach with his father during the winter, and the results thus far speak for themselves.

“We talked about it this offseason, and we watched all my at-bats with men on base,” Cruz said. “He always gives me advice, saying, ‘concentrate, concentrate. If you’re concentrating, if you have men on base, then concentrate more. Get your pitch, or try to go up there and say, OK, I want to swing at this pitch, and don’t swing at other pitches.’ So, that’s basically what I’m doing this year.”

More than putting his father’s advice to use, Cruz said he playing better simply because he feels better.

Last season was about making adjustments, both mental and physical, to Japan and the particular demands of NPB life (especially practice). Cruz played in 126 games in 2014, hitting .238 with 16 home runs and 61 RBIs.

Once the year was over, Cruz focused on getting some rest. He mostly stayed away from baseball for about two months. Normally a mainstay on the winter ball circuit, playing for Tomateros de Culiacan, he sat out last winter.

“The first time I played winter ball was in 2003,” he said. “Since that year, I was playing every year. Last year, my team won the championship without me or (Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher) Oliver Perez,” he added with a wry smile. “I needed to rest. After last year, my body was exhausted. Japanese baseball is different, way different than American or Mexican baseball.”

So Cruz took a few weeks to spend time with his family, take a vacation with his wife and cheer on his winter ball teammates. In November, he was ready to start training again and returned to Japan in February feeling rejuvenated. “Last year, spring camp killed me, but this year, it was easier,” he said.

A year of experience has also worked wonders.

Japanese pitchers are less of a mystery, which has helped Cruz’s approach at the plate. He’s swinging at good pitches, striking the ball better, and producing smarter at-bats. Through 34 games, Cruz had already drawn 11 walks after having 18 all of last season.

“The first year was tough, because Japanese pitchers are very different,” Cruz said. “This year, I kind of know their mechanics. So my timing is good. I feel more confident. I’m hitting my pitch and I’m hitting a lot better than last year. I’m kind of learning the way they play baseball. With men on base, they prefer to walk you or pitch around you so you get yourself out. When my timing is right, I take those pitches and walk.”

Cruz said baseball is like a “roller coaster” and he’s not going to get overly excited because of a strong start. He wants to keep it simple and do his job, and says veteran Lotte outfielder Saburo Omura has been a big help in that regard.

“Sometimes I hit a home run or something, and he goes ‘hey, now you gotta go back to the middle,’ ” Cruz said. “Because once you hit a home run, your mind-set is, I wanna hit another one. But you’ve got someone you respect there, and he’s telling you, ‘go back to the basics.’

“Everybody is helping me, and I hope I can keep doing this. I’m going to work harder than ever, and let’s see what happens in June and July.”