Nelson Cruz, at 35, is enjoying the best year of his career — and he has news for everybody: He’s still getting better.
“Yeah, no doubt,” he declared this week in a soft, matter-of-fact tone. “I’m more consistent. I’d always been more of a streak hitter. Even now, that’s still true. But even in a slump, I can get my hits.
“I’ve always been able to find ways to hit homers, even when I struggle, but by being able to stay more consistent that’s definitely a plus.”
Cruz expects to return to the lineup Friday when the Seattle Mariners open a three-game weekend series at Boston. He watched Hisashi Iwakuma’s no-hitter Wednesday from the bench because of a sore neck.
The ailment surfaced out of nowhere Tuesday while Cruz sat on the bench, and it forced his removal from the game. Cruz insists it’s minor, but the Mariners, with an open date Thursday, chose to be cautious.
“Oh, it’s much better already,” Cruz said Wednesday amid the postgame clubhouse celebration that followed Iwakuma’s no-hitter against the Orioles. “I’ll be playing Friday, for sure.”
Cruz entered the open date as — deep breath — the major league leader in homers (34) and total bases (263); the co-leader in hits (140) with Texas designated hitter Prince Fielder; and as the American League leader in slugging percentage (.609) and OPS — on-base plus slugging — (.998).
He is on pace to set career highs in each of those categories. Cruz is also batting .324, which would be a career best, and is currently on a 21-game hitting streak, which is also a career best.
“I think he’s probably a better hitter than he was (earlier in his career) in Texas,” manager Lloyd McClendon said, “because he has the ability to really slow things down.
“He can take a base hit to right field in the hole between first and second. I’m not sure, five or six years ago, he was willing to do that — or had the capability to do that. It’s been pretty impressive.”
Cruz says much the same thing.
“I’ve been able to go the other way more consistently than in the past,” he said. “That’s definitely one difference. My approach is the right one. I can cover more of the outside pitch than in the past.
“I guess you knock your head a few times (in frustration), and then you have to learn how to change.”
So what changed?
“Since rookie ball,” Cruz said, “they tell you to stay square and hit the ball the other way. But it’s not that easy.
“It takes experience to help you understand and know what it takes to stay square and hit what the pitchers give you.”
All with not only no loss in power, but also increased power. Cruz set a career high last season in leading the majors with 40 homers but is on pace to finish with 48.
So much for the general view, entering the season, that Cruz benefited last year from playing home games at cozy Camden Yards and would be far less potent at a more spacious Safeco Field.
The Mariners never bought into that reasoning, which is why they plucked Cruz from the free-agent market by agreeing to shell out $57 million for four years.
No less an authority than Felix Hernandez dismissed the suggestion that Safeco was too big for Cruz. Hernandez knew firsthand after seeing one of his pitches last season turn into a Cruz laser shot.
“The line drive to left field?” Hernandez recalled. “Geeezus, it got out easy. I think he’s got three (homers) against me at Safeco Field. One to center field.”
It’s not that Cruz is conquering Safeco, but rather he’s showing the skills to adjust to it. Only 10 of his 34 homers have come at home, but he is batting .313 at Safeco with a .393 on-base percentage.
As much as anything, that reflects the new and still-evolving Cruz.
“I just want to improve,” he said. “I want to get better. If you can hit for average, that is definitely a plus. Not just hit homers, but also be on base for your teammates.”
Another look at some facts and figures related to Iwakuma’s no-hitter Wednesday in a 3-0 victory over Baltimore at Safeco Field.
▪ It was the fifth no-hitter in franchise history, and all five have come at home.
▪ It was the first no-hitter by an American League pitcher since Hernandez’s perfect game on Aug. 15, 2012, in a 1-0 victory over Tampa Bay. There were 12 no-hitters by National League pitchers during that span.
▪ Each of the last three AL no-hitters were thrown by the Mariners. Prior to Hernandez’s gem, Kevin Millwood and five relievers had a combined no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 8, 2012.
▪ Iwakuma is the second Japanese-born pitcher to record a no-hitter. Hideo Nomo had two: Sept. 17, 1996 for the Dodgers at Colorado; and April 4, 2001 for Boston at Baltimore.
▪ Iwakuma is the oldest pitcher, at 34, to pitch a no-hitter since Randy Johnson, at 40, in 2004 for Arizona at Atlanta.
▪ Iwakuma did not have a complete game in his previous 87 career starts before Wednesday. He had 48 complete games, including six shutouts, during his 11-year career in Japan’s Pacific League — but no no-hitter.
Two Single-A Bakersfield players, one former and one current, drew notice for their base running in Baseball America’s annual “best tools” survey for the California League.
Infielder Timmy Lopes was cited by the league’s managers and coaches as being the league’s best base runner, while outfielder Ian Miller was picked as the fastest base runner.
Miller, 23, was promoted May 28 to Double-A Jackson. A 14th-round pick in 2013, he is batting a combined .260 in 104 games for Bakersfield and Jackson with 42 steals in 56 attempts.
Lopes, 21, was a sixth-round pick in 2012 who is batting .283 with a .342 on-base percentage and a .373 slugging percentage in 104 games.
Outfielder Ramon Flores, who is in line for a September promotion, is batting .444 (20 for 45) in 12 games at Triple-A Tacoma since arriving in the July 30 trade that sent outfielder Dustin Ackley to the Yankees.
Flores, 23, also has 10 walks for a .545 on-base percentage.
The Mariners also acquired right-hander reliever Jose Ramirez, 25, in the deal. He has given up three earned runs and five hits in 4 1/3 innings over three appearances at Tacoma.
▪ Single-A Everett shortstop Drew Jackson carried a 17-game hitting streak into Thursday’s game in Eugene, Oregon. Jackson is batting .571 (38 for 73 in his streak).
It was 24 years ago — Aug. 14, 1991 — that Johnson entered the ninth inning against Oakland in search of his second career no-hitter.
The quest ended when, after Scott Brosius led off with a walk, Mike Gallego lined a single to left. Johnson also issued a one-out walk before striking out Willie Wilson and Jose Canseco.
Johnson settled for a one-hitter in a 4-0 victory at the Kingdome. It was the first of his four one-hit complete games. He got a second no-hitter on May 18, 2004 while pitching for Arizona against Atlanta.
The Mariners open a three-game weekend series against Red Sox at 4:10 p.m. (PDT) Friday at Fenway Park in Boston. Left-hander Mike Montgomery (4-4, 3.25 ERA) will face Red Sox lefty Joe Kelly (4-6, 5.96). The game will be broadcast on Root Sports and 710-AM.