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Orioles

Orioles still have hugs for Mariners slugger Nelson Cruz

SEATTLE — Even though he's wearing a different uniform, Nelson Cruz is still have a positive affect on the Orioles.

His one season in Baltimore was a memorable one. He carried the Orioles offense on his shoulders and led the majors with 40 home runs. He was the Most Valuable Oriole on a team that won the American League East and went to the AL Championship Series.

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But before the Orioles opened their three-game series Monday evening against Cruz's new team, the Seattle Mariners, practically every member of the team's travel party, including manager Buck Showalter, center fielder Adam Jones, third baseman Manny Machado and head trainer Richie Bancells had a hug for Cruz during Mariners batting practice.

"Nelson had time for everybody," Showalter said. "Nelson had time and reached out to everybody. If some guy just traded or came up from the minor leagues, he has no airs about him, whether it's some guy who played 15 years in the big leagues or it was some minor-league Harry like me. … He cares about a lot more than playing the game. You don't hear him complain about being asked to do commercials or appearances. He's just glad they're asking because he's been on the side when they didn't ask."

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Cruz -- who signed a four-year, $57-million contract with the Mariners in the offseason -- entered Monday in the midst of perhaps his finest season. He is tied for the major league lead with 33 homers — including seven homers in his past nine games — and is hitting .325, much better than his career average of .274. He also entered the night riding a 19-game hitting streak, tying the longest of his career, and was hitting .422 with six doubles, 12 homers and 16 RBIs during that streak.

Last season, Cruz enjoyed a tremendous first half with the Orioles, hitting 28 of his 40 homers before the All-Star Break. This season, he is hitting .381 in the 23 games since the break.

Cruz admits the cool Seattle summers probably agree with his body more than the Baltimore humidity, but he said he's been much better taking what pitchers give him and going the other way with the ball.

"I think experience helps," Cruz said. "I have an idea of what to expect. I think that's a big deal in how I prepare for every game. … I've been able to go the other way more consistent than in the past. That's one of the big differences. I guess my approach is the right one. I can cover more of the outside pitch than I've been able to in the past."

Machado said Cruz is missed in the Orioles clubhouse, but it's not just his bat. Cruz was a mentor for young players like Machado and second baseman Jonathan Schoop, especially because of his engaging personality and constant optimism.

"He didn't believe in struggling," Machado said. "I don't think he believed in it. He kept us positive every time, no matter what we did throughout the day. He just kept us positive always. He always had that positive vibe that nobody ever had. We have certain guys here who bring that positivity every day and the hustle, but what he brought us and showed us, he taught us everything about hitting, how to go up there with your approach, when you're struggling not to try to do too much, that less is more. He just took us under the wing. … He's a great guy to have by your side and a great friend that everybody needs."

"He's family," Machado added. "I'm happy he got what he deserved and, overall, he's having the year of his career. ... It's not something that's surprising because I know what he can do. I know the type of player he is. It just sucks that he's not on our side helping us out. …We could use those numbers, hands down. It would have been a different story if he was here, but not just because of his numbers, but what he brought to the table every day."

Showalter joked that while Cruz is a friend, he'll wait until after this week's series to root for him.

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Cruz said he's constantly keeping up with his former teammates.

"We keep in touch," Cruz said. "Twice or three times a week, I'll call up and see how they're doing and stuff. I care because I know that even though they are my ex-teammates, they are my friends. You want to see your friends do good."

eencina@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EddieInTheYard


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