And while the Orioles have reaped a huge payoff from their investment in Cruz — he led the majors with 40 homers and at times, carried the club on his broad shoulders — the 34-year-old slugger brings huge playoff credentials into the Orioles' American League Division Series matchup against the Detroit Tigers.
Entering Game 1 on Thursday, Cruz has played in 34 postseason games, all of them as a member of Texas Rangers teams that went to two World Series. His 14 postseason homers are fifth-most among players who were active this season, trailing the likes of recently-retired Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, David Ortiz and Carlos Beltran.
"You try to make sure to concentrate [knowing] every pitch is important," Cruz said. "Along the way, 162 games, sometimes it's hard to stay focused the whole game or every pitch if you try, but in the playoffs it changes a little bit."
The last time he faced the Tigers in the postseason, Cruz walked away with the 2011 American League Championship Series MVP award. He hit .364 with six homers and 13 RBIs in the Rangers' six-game series win over Detroit. It's a performance Cruz still relishes.
"It plays into your mind," Cruz said. "It's hard to forget about when you have such a good run, especially against that team. They're so dominant. But no doubt, it's different. I think the main thing for me is being prepared."
Cruz was just 5-for-22 against the Tigers in the regular season, a season series in which the Orioles lost five of six games to Detroit, all before June.
But he's had success against the Tigers' trio of Cy Young award winners — Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and David Price. Including the postseason, Cruz is hitting .333 with eight home runs in his career against the trio, including three homers off Verlander and Price.
"I've had more recent at bats against him since 2011 and I feel like I'm a different pitcher since 2011," said Game 1 starter Max Scherzer when asked about Cruz's ALCS in 2011. "I'm aware he's a very talented hitter, but that's something where I will sit down before tomorrow and come out with a game plan of what I want to try to do against him, how I want to execute my pitches to get him out hopefully multiple times."
Orioles manager Buck Showalter also won't get lost in the past.
"I have a lot of confidence that Nelson is not a guy that ever is tooting his own horn," Showalter said. "It's pretty hard for other people not to toot it for him and I think that's what you respect about him. He realizes how much everybody has to have a contribution. It's the greatest game ever invented because you can't make the ball be hit to your best defender. You can't make the bat always fall to your best hitter. You can't have a base stealing thing be created if somebody is not on first base. [There are] so many variables to it."
Cruz admits he is a streaky hitter, and in that 2011 ALCS, he was coming off a late-season left hamstring strain. He had just one hit in 15 at bats in the ALDS against the Tampa Bay Rays before suddenly getting hot.
"It was something where you're just locked in," Cruz said. "I was struggling the series before. I was coming back from an injury. I took three or four games before I started a game and then the playoff started right away. I wasn't ready for the challenge. It took me a few games to get my timing back. It's not like you're going to get hits every at-bat but when you prepare, it's more likely you'll be doing something good."
No one can doubt Cruz's impact on the Orioles. He launched two grand slams. He hit a team-high 13 go-ahead home runs and another three tied the game. The Orioles were 25-12 in games in which Cruz homered. Now, he has the opportunity to follow up the best season of his career with another playoff run.
"I think Nelson realizes that you want to be a "sum of the parts," Showalter said. "These are the best teams baseball has to offer. … There are always ebbs and flows and momentum swings in series, and I think the teams that are able to withstand those momentum swings that happen during the course of a game and get back on track and try to stay engaged ... have a chance to win some games late."
Rookie second baseman Jonathan Schoop said he's looked to Cruz for advice on how to handle the postseason.
"He told me it's [still] baseball and there's going to be nerves in it," Schoop said. "You're going to be excited in it. Just live in the moment. You're going to be nervous, but find a way to stay calm and just play the game and have fun with it."
Cruz knows he's been lucky to play in seven postseason series; he's played on on good teams. He hopes to relish this opportunity like it's his last.
"You don't know when you're going to be back," Cruz said. "The last time this team won the division was '97. A lot of players have come through here and haven't been able to accomplish that. No matter who you are, you don't know if it's the last time you're there, so you have to take advantage of every opportunity.
"It's always special, no matter who you are or what you've been through. This is something else. I'm looking forward to the challenge and I think the organization and the fans are looking forward to this."