April 16, 2012
By Jon Cooper
The long reliever or “Long Guy” is one of those role players who isn’t thought about until he’s in the game.
Alex Cruz is changing that.
The sophomore has got Georgia Tech thinking a lot more about long relief, but in a good way, and is making what can be an uncomfortable role cool.
He’s done it by staying cool.
“One of my biggest things is feeling good up there. You definitely want to stay focused and comfortable,” he said. “You can’t stress yourself out too much. I think that’s been my best tool, being able to stay relaxed on the mound and not let too many little things get into my head. That’s probably been my biggest thing is learning how to let the game play out and not try to control things I can’t.”
Saturday afternoon’s game at Wake Forest wasn’t playing out so well for Georgia Tech when Cruz entered the game in the bottom of the third inning in relief of starter Dusty Isaacs.
Wake had runners on second and third and nobody out. Tech had just cut a 4-0 lead to 4-3 in its half of the third. A big inning in response by the Demon Deacons might have taken all the air out of Tech’s sails.
The Woodstock, Ga., native wouldn’t let that happen. He allowed a sacrifice fly to the first batter he faced then retired the next two hitters in order, limiting the damage to one run.
Cruz would considerably limit the damage the rest of the way, allowing one unearned run, one hit and two walks over the next four innings. Cruz’s shutdown allowed Tech to come back. The Jackets scored four in the top of the fourth then added another in the top of the fifth. They would hold on to win, 8-7.
“It was definitely exciting to see us rally back and really compete and show great team play,” said Cruz, who raised his record to 3-1 with the career-long performance. “It’s always good to know you can keep the team in the ball game and give us the best possible chance to come out with a ‘W’.”
Turns out, Saturday’s win was no average ‘W.’ It was the 800th victory at Tech for head coach Danny Hall.
“It was actually brought up to me after the game,” he said. “It was awesome knowing that I could help Coach win another big milestone. He’s such a good coach and it definitely meant a lot for me to help him achieve that.”
Cruz has meant a lot to Hall and the Jackets this season.
“Alex been a big part of our bullpen,” said Hall. “We’ve brought him in in a lot of tough situations and he’s been able to settle the game for us, and given the offense a chance. He’s done a nice job of throwing strikes, and what I like most is that he pitches with very good rhythm.”
Cruz did a little pitching in high school at Blessed Trinity Catholic, but was primarily an infielder. Last season he appeared in 12 games at shortstop and third base as a freshman, making four starts. When Hall proposed the idea of taking the mound, it came with the caveat that he’d see the field more. That was too good an opportunity to pass up.
“Over the fall, Coach Hall asked me how I felt about pitching and I told him that I liked it and that I’d work at it,” Cruz remembered. “He told me to try to put some work in and get a good feel for it and it could help us out a lot. So I put that in my mind and tried to do whatever I can. I definitely played infield a lot more than I pitched. I always had kind of a small feel for pitching, but I never knew I’d come to Tech and throw. That’s for sure.”
Cruz has become a dependable right-handed arm that is proficient with three pitches (fastball, curveball, change-up, his best pitch).
Heading into tonight’s game with Georgia State (first pitch at Russ Chandler Stadium is at 6 p.m.), the righty is pitching to a 1.32 ERA (five earned runs in 34 innings), has allowed 17 hits, and walked 13 batters while striking out 28. He is holding opposing hitters to a team-low .145 average.
Cruz gives much of the credit for his success to his teammates, who he puts to good use.
“I’ve always kind of pitched to contact. I figure, let the seven guys behind me do their thing,” he said. “So I try to get a lot of ground balls and fly outs and keep everybody moving around because I know some of the position players don’t really like standing around. They like moving and having a faster tempo of the game. With my mechanics, I try not to do too much, just try to stay smooth and get a feel for how everything goes.”
It’s becoming a case of how long Cruz can go and that’s getting longer and longer. Saturday was his third appearance of the season in which he’s gone at least 4 2/3 innings — all three have been in the last 15 days.
The idea of becoming a full-time starter is not necessarily out of the picture.
“That would be great,” he said. “The more I throw and build my arm strength, it feels better on days after I throw those three or four innings. I feel like if I can keep it up I can definitely build myself up to even possibly start if I get the opportunity.”
That opportunity awaits down the road. For right now, Cruz simply wants to do what he’s always wanted to do.
“Whatever it takes to help out our team and to help us win some games,” he said. “I’m willing to do anything.”