Tony Cruz’s body language changed for just a split second.
Running toward first base, Cruz seemed to celebrate as he watched the ball land safely in the outfield grass for a single in Tuesday’s game against the Cincinnati Reds.
Perhaps it was relief more than anything. It was Cruz’s first hit of the spring in 18 at-bats. Earlier in the Reds’ 4-2 win in Goodyear, Ariz., Cruz had allowed a passed ball.
An .056 average and a defensive misplay don’t look good on the spring resume of a player trying to win a job that will require him to sit for most of the season: catcher Salvador Perez’s backup.
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There are few position battles this spring for the defending World Series champions. But Cruz and Drew Butera are the candidates for backup catcher.
“Both guys have playoff experience, both guys have played in the big leagues for years,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “They’re both very solid behind home plate.”
Butera is well-known to Royals fans. He was behind the plate when Wade Davis struck out Wilmer Flores to win the World Series.
Thirty-one days later, the Royals traded minor-league infielder Jose Martinez to the Cardinals for Cruz, who had spent the past four seasons as a backup to another All-Star, Yadier Molina.
Battling an incumbent in Butera for the backup role can’t be easy, but Cruz is undeterred.
“There were definitely a few years there where I had to compete for the backup job as well,” Cruz said of his time in St. Louis. “It’s nothing new to me. Even if the job was mine, I’d still go about it like I have to make the team. It’s just the way I was taught.”
While he’s a hard worker, Cruz’s career stats won’t make a fan swoon.
In 633 career plate appearances, Cruz has a .220 average with five homers, 58 RBIs and a .572 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
According to Baseball-Reference.com, he’s thrown out 27 percent of would-be base stealers in his career. The league average in that time is 28 percent.
But Cruz has shown flashes of something more.
He started 12 straight games for the Cardinals late in 2015 when Molina was out with thumb and wrist injuries. While the Cardinals were locked in a battle for the National League Central division, Cruz had a nine-game stretch when he batted .321 with five doubles, one triple, one homer and an OPS of 1.012.
In the 2014 playoffs, he hit a home run off Giants ace Madison Bumgarner, who essentially won the World Series against the Royals.
The even-keeled Cruz doesn’t even crack a smile when talking about the homer.
“I believe it was a little slider, cutter in,” he said. “He was trying to go in and just left the middle.”
After the Cardinals were eliminated in last year’s playoffs, Cruz watched some of the Royals’ games. He called them resilient and “kind of fun to watch.”
Now those guys are his teammates. Laughter often erupts in the clubhouse, but Cruz quietly goes about his business. He is one of the new guys, after all.
“These guys are really laid back, having a good time,” Cruz said, “but when it’s time to get serious, they get down to work.”
That suits Cruz, who is fighting an uphill battle. Not only is he the new guy, but he can be optioned to the minor leagues without another team claiming him. That is not the case for Butera.
“The important thing is we’ll have a backup catcher and we’ll have some depth, too,” Yost said. “That helps. You’ve got to have that. Catching depth is the hardest thing to find these days.”