The last time the voting populace elected a Seattle Mariners designated hitter as an All-Star Game starter, the club won 93 games and finished in second place in the American League West.
The time before that — two years prior, in 2001 — they had one of the best teams of all time, won 116 games and ran away with the AL West championship.
And in 1997, the first time Edgar Martinez, DH extraordinaire, was chosen by fans to start the All-Star Game, the Mariners won the West outright for the first time in franchise history (Martinez also started the All-Star Game in 1995, and that season turned out OK for the Mariners, too).
Which is to say that Nelson Cruz’s selection as the AL’s starting DH in Tuesday’s All-Star Game in Cincinnati arrives under somewhat different circumstances.
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The Mariners enter the break with a 41-48 record, 7.5 games back of the first-place Los Angeles Angels, their inert offense the focus of a disappointing first half.
Just imagine, then, where they would be without Cruz, who with an ever-so-slight uptick could reasonably become just the fourth player in franchise history to hit 40 or more home runs in a season (Ken Griffey Jr. did it six times, and Alex Rodriguez and Jay Buhner did it three times each).
On Tuesday, Cruz will become the second Mariners DH to start an All-Star Game. He secured that honor by winning a close vote over Kansas City Royals DH (and former Mariner) Kendrys Morales.
And while the Mariners’ season has thus far been defined by underachievement, Cruz has been a bright spot. After signing a four-year, $58 million contract with the Mariners this offseason, Cruz, the AL’s reigning home-run king — he hit 40 last season for the Baltimore Orioles — has delivered in a way that few likely expected: Through 89 games, he’s hit 21 homers (tied for fifth in the AL), driven in 53 runs, batted .308 (seventh-best in the AL) and assembled an on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) of .919 (fourth-best in the AL).
Those numbers were buoyed by a particularly impressive month-plus to begin the season; in his first 34 games, Cruz batted .361 with 15 homers and a 1.158 OPS.
And though he’s played more games in right field (49) than at DH (38) — and that’s the way he prefers it — Cruz said he’s come to appreciate the latter more and more.
“You have to see the positive in everything,” Cruz said at his locker last week before a game against the Detroit Tigers. “You’ve got time to rest when you’re DHing, time to help your teammates, watch videos of what they’re doing and stuff like that so you can help them. So you can take advantage of all the situations you have.”
His teammates do not fail to appreciate the kind of power that has been so rare in Seattle for most of the last decade. Seattle shortstop Brad Miller remembers that at his first spring training, when Cruz was playing for the Texas Rangers, he watched him mash a few pitches and thought: “Wow, OK. I need to hit the weight room a little bit, because this is pretty grown-men stuff right here.”
Said first baseman Logan Morrison: “His swing path is like a perfect ‘C.’ The ball’s down, it’s a perfect ‘C,’ and he’s able to adjust that when the ball’s up and go flatter. The reason you want it to be a ‘C’ is so when the ball’s down, you can be on plane with it, pick it up and hit homers. Guys like myself struggle with that, and that ball is hit hard but it’s hit on the ground or on a line and it’s caught, versus in the air and stays very straight for him.”
Off the field, Cruz is the quintessential unassuming star, fitting in immediately with his disarming personality.
“He’s unbelievably nice,” Morrison said. “You would never know he’s a superstar. He treats everybody very equally, says hello to everyone, whether it be the security guard or Robbie (Cano) or the manager. … After losses he comes up to you and if you had a bad game, he says, ‘Don’t worry about it, man, we’re playing tomorrow, get ’em tomorrow. We’re going to come out of it.’ So he’s a very calming influence to have.”
It’s a style that seems to work well in Seattle, which Cruz describes as “a calm city,” noting, as an example, that he was struck by how willing fellow motorists are to allow others to change lanes in front of them.
“It’s peaceful,” he said. “It’s really peaceful. So I’ve enjoyed my time here and I love the city.”
He’s making his fourth All-Star Game appearance with his third different team, and says he’s able to relax and enjoy the scene more and more with each trip. His first selection came in 2009 in St. Louis, and he traveled there aboard a plane with fellow Rangers All-Stars Michael Young and Josh Hamilton — and, because the Rangers had just completed a four-game series in Seattle, Felix Hernandez and Ichiro Suzuki were there, too. Ken Griffey Jr. also came along for the ride. They played cards.
“It was a long flight,” Cruz said, “so we had a long time to do some different stuff.”
Martinez, now the Mariners’ hitting coach, says it’s “very cool” to see another Seattle DH earn an All-Star start. And his evaluation of Cruz’s approach at the plate sounds awfully familiar.
“Nelson is the kind of hitter that has a lot of power, but he also uses the whole field,” Martinez said. “He goes with what the pitcher gives him. If they’re pitching away, he goes the other way. He just covers the whole plate.
“He’s adjusted to both roles, whether he’s playing in the outfield or DH. He just adjusts really well. It’s been consistent all year.”
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FELIX AN ALL-STAR FOR 6TH TIME
The inclusion of Mariners ace right-hander Felix Hernandez on the American League All-Star roster is becoming as sure of a thing as the sun rising in the east.
Hernandez joins Cruz as a Mariners representative this year after posting an 11-5 record with a 2.84 ERA and 112 strikeouts in his first 18 starts. It’s Hernandez’s fifth consecutive All-Star appearance and his sixth in the last seven seasons — and the one year he didn’t make it in that span (2010), he won the American League Cy Young.