As Schoop, Cruz push for AL RBI crown, Orioles second baseman credits his longtime friend

On Sunday evening before their teams played each other in a pivotal three-game series, the top two run producers in the American League talked about life over barbecue and dominoes.

The bond between Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop and Seattle Mariners slugger Nelson Cruz was created quickly during Cruz’s sole season in Baltimore three years ago. The 37-year-old Cruz — who helped lead the Orioles to their most recent division title and to the American League Championship Series — is on pace for his fourth straight 40-homer season and third with the Mariners, who offered him the fourth year the Orioles weren’t willing to when he became a free agent after the 2014 season.

In their one season together, Schoop was working through the growing pains of his first big league season and, along with third baseman Manny Machado, fell under Cruz’s wing in the Orioles clubhouse.

Now at age 25, Schoop has blossomed into a star, and credits his former teammate for offering him immense guidance along the way.

“That was my first year and he taught me a lot,” Schoop said. “He guided me the right way, showed me everything he knows, how I have to carry myself. To have someone like him to help me out, that’s one of the best moments of my life. He really helped me and my career go far.”

It is amazing to think about the impact Cruz had on the club’s top two young position players even though they only played together for one season. But to project Schoop would blossom into one of the league’s top run producers — his 85 RBIs entering Tuesday were tied for second in the AL behind Cruz’s 95 — wasn’t a stretch for Cruz, whose friendship with Schoop has grown stronger even though they’re no longer teammates.

“You can tell his talent from the first day you see him,” Cruz said Monday before the teams played their series opener in Seattle. “He’s got a lot of talent and can do a lot of things. It was just a matter of time until he put everything together, and he did it. Everything clicked. His bat, his leadership. You can tell he’s a leader now. He definitely wants to win and get it done. To be able to have that many RBIs, you have to be consistent through the year. He had to find everything at the right time.”

Schoop said Cruz had a great effect on his growth as a player, calling Cruz his “daddy” at the mention of them both chasing the RBI lead.

“That’s what we call him, ‘Papa,’” Schoop said. “That’s what me and Manny call him. Everybody calls him Papa. He’s like a dad to me, for sure. He teaches me every day and he’s the best.

“Since day one, he’s going to show you the real him. It’s not fake. Yeah, he can go 0-for-4 with four strikeouts and he’s being there cheering you on. He’s wants you to do good. Just because he’s doing bad, he’s not going to sit down and cry. He’s the kind of person I appreciate a lot. He’s the guy you can talk with every time. Even when you get frustrated, you can ask him something. I have lots of respect for that guy, just lots of respect for him.”

Schoop is perhaps more surprised than his former teammate that his name is now mentioned alongside that of Cruz, and it serves as a reality check for how far he’s come since the two played together.

“No doubt, he came up quick,” Cruz said. “It was a transformation from one year to another. He’s a totally different hitter now, about his approach and how much he can put the ball in play and he can go everywhere now. I remember situations where he’d try to hit three homers in a single at-bat. Now he can go with the pitch, hit with runners in scoring position and what he can do on defense is remarkable.”

These days, Schoop never wastes an opportunity to see Cruz. No sooner than he came off the club’s flight to Seattle from Oakland, Calif., on Sunday night, he went to Cruz’s house for a cookout. Two offseasons ago, Cruz flew to Schoop’s native Curaçao to participate in a home run derby event the Orioles second baseman was helping to put on.

In the first two games of this series, batting practice has been a reunion for Cruz and his former teammates. Before Monday’s game, Orioles manager Buck Showalter noticed that during BP Cruz was challenging Schoop to make sure he doesn’t get content and finishes the season strong.

When Schoop played in his first All-Star Game in Miami last month, he was always by Cruz’s side.

“We’re close,” Cruz said. “We talk every day. Even [Sunday] night we were together. At the All-Star Game, we went out both days there. He told me, ‘Everywhere you go, tell them I’m going with you.’”

Said Schoop: “That was amazing. It was my first All-Star Game and he was there. I was there to follow his lead. I followed him everywhere.”

In 2014, Schoop walked just 13 times in 481 plate appearances. He has already more than doubled that total this season, going into Tuesday with 28 walks in 491 plate appearances. His power numbers have gradually grown, his .303 batting average heading into Tuesday was almost 100 points higher than his .209 in 2014 and his OPS of .890 was nearly 300 points higher than his .598 three seasons ago.

“You go through a lot of things,” Cruz said. “You go through bad situations, struggling. I think the most important thing is when you’re struggling, you need people. In situations in the game when you having runners in scoring position or it’s a long inning, what do you do in that at-bat? So you can go on about a lot of stuff. But I think he sees with what I was doing, maybe the basics helped the most — his routine, to prepare for the game every day.”

Even now, Schoop leans on Cruz when he’s searching for help, sending him a postgame text after a frustrating game, and knows that he’ll get a thoughtful response.

“We weren’t teammates, but we always stayed in communication,” Schoop said. “If I had a bad inning, I could still go to him and tell him, ‘Help me out.’ Even though we didn’t play on the same team, he’d still help me out. When we come to play them, I always go to his house and eat and have fun. In the offseason, he comes to see me one year. It’s not only being teammates, we’re friends outside of baseball.”

Both would prefer to lead their teams to the postseason than revel in individual accomplishments, but the two have still formed a competitive rivalry over the AL RBI crown.

“I remember two weeks ago or something like that and we [were] tied with RBIs and he texted me and told me, ‘I’ve got you,’” Cruz said. “I told him, ‘I’m waiting for you. Come on.’ It’s a friendly competition, but it’s something you appreciate because he’s grown up and he’s become a leader and one of the best RBI guys in the league.

“If I don’t do it, I’d like to watch someone I admire and call my friend. Sometimes I don’t look at those numbers. I focus on what I can do on a daily basis to help my team, but it’s obvious you can’t avoid it.”

Schoop is just grateful to be mentioned in the same class as Cruz, but is more grateful to have his lasting friendship.

“I didn’t know then,” Schoop said. “He came in and he treated me well, but I didn’t know it was going to last long like this. I’m grateful to have his friendship. It’s deep because I appreciate everything he does for me. He teaches me everything and he’s given me his friendship. He’s given me his confidence and it’s not only a teammate; it’s a friendship, too. I can come to him about things outside of baseball, too. Our relationship is really good and I’m looking forward to it for many years.”

eencina@baltsun.com

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