KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Walking into the American League clubhouse ahead of the 2009 All-Star Game, Nelson Cruz took a moment to soak it in. At the time, he was 29, and he remembers being around all-time greats Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. Joe Mauer was there, too, he recalled.
“(I) just took it in,” Cruz said. “Your first one, you don’t know if you’re going to be back.”
Over the course of his highly decorated career, Cruz has been back plenty since then. And on Sunday, he received news that he’d be back once more, named to the all-star team for the seventh time in his career.
While both starter José Berríos and reliever Taylor Rogers had strong cases — and Byron Buxton very likely would have been named to the team if healthy — Cruz will be serving as the Twins’ lone representative next Tuesday night at Coors Field in Denver, likely fielding questions from his peers that he was once the one asking.
“I guess I’m going to be the old guy,” Cruz said, noting that he could now share his experience and what he’s done to help him stay productive in the game for so long.
At 41, Cruz sure hasn’t been playing like “the old guy.” Cruz is hitting .306 with a .381 on-base percentage and .571 slugging percentage. His 18 home runs lead the Twins’ and his .952 OPS is near the top of the league.
“He’s been a rock in the middle of the lineup. He’s one of the oldest players in the game but he posts up and wants to play every day,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He’s been phenomenal since his first day in a Twins uniform. He’s been phenomenal and we’ve gotten more of it this year. He’s a well-deserving all-star.”
Cruz’s numbers took a dive in May, especially after being hit on the wrist by a pitch that briefly seemed to sap him of some power, but he rebounded by slashing .380/.457/.759 and hitting eight home runs in the month of June.
Cruz has stayed otherwise healthy — he was scratched with minor neck stiffness on Sunday — and productive all season. He joins Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani, who was voted in as a starter, and JD Martinez of the Red Sox as the three designated hitters on the American League roster.
While Ohtani has accepted a spot in next Monday’s Home Run Derby, Cruz said he declined the invitation. Cruz participated in the event in 2009, narrowly edged out in the finals by the Brewers’ Prince Fielder.
“It’s a great experience, great fans, great for the game. Great for guys who haven’t done that. It’s totally different, you’re swinging for the fence every single pitch,” Cruz said of Home Run Derby. “And in BP, you try to hit line drives, different swing. That can mess up your swing for two, three days, and you don’t want that.”
Instead, he’ll enjoy participating in the rest of the festivities and the game itself, where he said this year’s goal is simply to get a hit.
And he’ll make a few more memories along the way. Cruz famously made waves when he pulled out his cell phone and posed for a picture with longtime umpire Joe West at home plate during the 2017 All-Star Game, but he said he has nothing in particular planned for this year.
“That was a highlight,” he said. “I think I shocked the world with that picture.”
And then when the festivities have concluded, he has important plans for the remaining two days of the break, too.
“Sleep,” he said.
Josh Donaldson (hamstring) was out of the lineup on Sunday, but Baldelli said Donaldson’s right hamstring was “not a major issue of any kind.” … Michael Pineda (forearm) is not expected to need another rehab start, meaning the Twins should be able to pencil him into the rotation this week. … Former Twins Kyle Gibson, Lance Lynn, Ryan Pressly, Liam Hendriks and Eduardo Escobar were also named all-stars on Sunday.