Unlike other veterans, Mariners’ healthy Nelson Cruz proving he can still keep up with faster fastballs

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Mariners designated hitter Nelson Cruz celebrates another homer at home plate with Kyle Seager, this time a solo knock in the fourth inning giving the M's the go-ahead run against the Angels, Monday, June 11, 2018 at Safeco Field in Seattle. The Mariners won, 5-3. (Ken Lambert/Seattle Times/TNS)

Want to know a sign that Nelson Cruz is finally feeling healthy?

He reached base in front of Kyle Seager in the seventh inning of Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays when Seager rocketed a go-ahead two-run home run over the right field wall in the eventual 5-4 Seattle Mariners victory.

Cruz crossed home plate, trotted toward the dugout and turned around to leap into Seager’s arms. It’s their thing, with Cruz remembering back to his first year with the Mariners three seasons ago when he and Seager embraced for an awkward couple of seconds in Tampa Bay.

“And I guess people liked it,” Cruz laughed.

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But it’s not always a jump hug. This was.

The more healthy Cruz has felt, the more the ball has jumped off his bat, with the Mariners needing every bit of it.

Cruz can carry a lineup and he’s done much of that over the past two-plus weeks, hitting eight of his 15 home runs since May 24 and batting .323 in that stretch -- raising his season batting average from .221 to .250 entering Monday’s game against the Los Angeles Angels.

HIs two homers in his first two at-bats on Monday surpassed Mitch Haniger for the team lead in homers.

“It’s just about me playing,” Cruz said. “That’s the only way I can fix myself. It was only a matter of time before I got healthy and found my swing at the same time.”

And with the Angels and Boston Red Sox in town for seven days, followed by three games against the New York Yankees and more of the Red Sox in what should test how much of a playoff contender the Mariners really are -- they’ll need a lot more of Cruz leading the offense.

“He’s such a big part of our lineup and driving guys in and getting the ball out of the ballpark,” Servais said. “We saw it coming at the end of the last homestand when he was starting to come out of it and hit some balls hard and the at-bats were getting better. And then he really had a good road trip.”

Not bad for a soon-to-be 38-year-old.

Some have researched the past few seasons how older hitters around baseball handle increasing fastball velocity from pitchers and Cruz has been one of the best against fastballs despite being closer to 40 than 30.

Last season he batted .454 against four-seam fastballs, fifth-best in the major leagues, with the league average being .344. And of the four players ahead of Cruz on that list, none were over the age of 30.

Cruz’s average against four-seam fastballs had dipped to .250 entering Monday, according to MLB’s Statcast. But he’s also struggled to stay healthy, especially with how many times he’s been hit by pitches (tied for the major-league lead with 10).

“I certainly haven’t seen that out of Nelson,” Servais said of him reacting slower to fastballs. “You get older and guys are going to attack you differently and certainly with the number of guys in the league right now who throw it as hard as they do it can become a little bit more challenging. But I haven’t seen any issues for Nellie at all. The guy pitching the other day was 97-98 and Nellie was right on him.”

Six of his previous seven home runs, including that two-run first-inning bomb on Monday (hit with 115-mph exit velocity) and his 415-foot fourth-inning bomb, had come against fastballs, including a 95-mph one against the Astros last week.

Monday was his first multi-homer game of the season and 24th of his career.

“I feel like they don’t throw me fastballs,” Cruz said. “I am not concerned much about fastballs. Even the guys who are throwing 98 are throwing me five pitches and one of them is a fastball.”

He’s right. According to Fangraphs, Cruz has so far seen the fewest percentage of fastballs (46.6 percent) of his career, even though those fastballs are at the highest average velocity (94 mph) he’s seen.

He was limited in spring training with a quad injury, hit two home runs his first two games of the season despite it lingering, then tripped on a dugout step and went to the disabled list with a sprained ankle. He’s also had contusions on his foot and elbow because of being hit by pitches.

Cruz said finding his timing has suffered because of the injuries.

“The ankle was totally different than anything I had experienced before,” Cruz said. “But I know my body and I’ve been through injuries and slumps in the past. At the end of the day you have to prepare yourself and do the things you think will make you successful out there.”

Cruz apparently played this past weekend with migraines -- and he still hit home runs on Saturday and Sunday.

“His timing is much better,” Servais said. “He’s staying behind the ball and he’s not chasing. He’s been really big for our team, no doubt, and he’s feeling healthier.”

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