Opinion

Analyst: Royals must contain Nelson Cruz and his ‘boom stick’

Baltimore’s Nelson Cruz.
Baltimore’s Nelson Cruz. The Associated Press

Dan Plesac was a three-time All-Star closer for the Milwaukee Brewers, so he knows exactly how he’d pitch to Baltimore Orioles designated hitter Nelson Cruz.

“Carefully,” he said with a laugh.

“If a base is open and the game is close, put him on,” Plesac added. “I wouldn’t let Nelson Cruz hit, particularly in Baltimore where the ball flies out of all parts of the ballpark. You have a better chance of containing Nelly Cruz in Kansas City. But I think if at all possible, you don’t have to pitch to the guy, don’t pitch to the guy.”

Why the caution?

Let’s count the reasons. He hit a major-league best 40 homers this season. In the ALDS against Detroit, Cruz batted .500 with two homers and five RBIs.

Also: In 37 career playoff games (34 with the Texas Rangers), Cruz hit 16 homers with 32 RBIs and a 1.059 OPS.

James Shields, who will start game one of the ALCS on Friday, has experience facing Cruz in the playoffs. When Shields was with the Rays and Cruz with the Rangers in 2011, Cruz had a single and two strikeouts in three at-bats against Shields in the ALDS.

Plesac, who is now an MLB Network analyst who will be on “MLB Tonight” during the postseason, said pitching to Cruz may be the biggest key for the Royals.

“Without Chris Davis and without (Matt) Wieters and without Manny Machado, this isn’t the same Orioles team,” Plesac said. “This lineup can be pitched to, but boy, you better proceed with caution with Nelson Cruz. The guy is on fire right now, he handled a very good pitching staff in the Tigers. You’re not going to get better than facing (Max) Scherzer, (Justin) Verlander and (David) Price. The guy is hot right now, he likes the postseason stage. I think the key for the Royals is containing the boom stick.”

That the Royals are in the American League Championship Series may come as a surprise for some fans across the country, but not Plesac.

In February, Plesac visited 14 camps in Arizona as part of the MLB Network’s annual 30 camps in 30 days. Two of camps made an impression: the Indians and the Royals.

Later, Plesac went on the air and proclaimed the Royals would make the playoffs.

Eight months later, he looks like a genius.

“The Royals camp, I just left the complex in Surprise and I thought, ‘They’ve got something special going on.’ It just seemed that from walking from all of the practice fields and the little field in the back where the pitchers were doing their thing, you could just feel the vibe. It was a very optimistic camp.”

Plesac wasn’t at Kauffman Stadium for the Royals’ first playoff game against the Oakland A’s. However, he believes the Royals’ 9-8 victory in the Wild Card Game emboldened the team.

“It is hard to say that one game can make a difference or entirely change the mojo, but I think that Game 163 (the Wild Card Game), it had disappointment, it had comeback, it had disappointment, it had comeback,” Plesac said. “Going into the eighth inning and you’re down to Jon Lester, that game was over.

“I just think in that game, this team grew up. It was every possible emotion that a team or player could go through in about a 3 1/2-hour window.

“After surviving that game, I don’t think there is anything right now that scares this team. They think they can win and that is the biggest hurdle. My biggest concern with the Royals in August and September was simply this: I wasn’t sure if those guys in the clubhouse really believed they were as good as a lot of people, myself included, thought they were. I knew this was a good team.”

To reach Pete Grathoff, call 816-234-4330 or send email to pgrathoff@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/pgrathoff

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