2022-06-28 07:31:36 By : Ms. Iris Wu

WASHINGTON -- Nationals Park may reside on the East Coast, but on Monday the Pirates and the Nationals, for a brief period, were operating on CST.

Oneil Cruz hit his first home run of the season in Pittsburgh’s 3-2 loss to Washington, and it couldn’t have been more on-brand: a 109.8 mph frozen rope that cleared the fences in about two seconds. As he rounded the bases, Cruz pantomimed as though he was looking at a watch, the celebration he conceived in the Minors. This was, indeed, Cruz’s time in the sunshine. 

“It was amazing,” said Miguel Yajure, who pitched four scoreless innings. “It looked like it wasn’t going to go out, and it just went out.”

Cruz didn’t think the ball was going to clear the fence due to its low launch angle (19 degrees). He ran hard out of the box, mentally prepared to dig for two bases if his line drive banged off the wall. After about two seconds, Cruz pumped the brakes, settled into a trot and checked his imaginary Rolex.

“I thought it was going to hit the wall and it just kept going,” said manager Derek Shelton. “This kid’s got unbelievable power. He hits the ball so dang hard. I thought it was going to be a double, and it just continued to go.”

As impressive as the exit velocity or launch angle was the location of the pitch that he mashed. Erick Fedde’s 3-1 fastball to Cruz was high and outside. Most left-handed hitters would roll over if they tried to pull that pitch. Cruz, a 6-foot-7 shortstop with an equally long wingspan, is not most left-handed hitters. Shelton credits Cruz’s ability to use his frame to create leverage.

“The extension on the front side, because he’s so big and so loose, is something that really stands out,” Shelton said.

Cruz, of course, is wont to stand out.

Most left-handed hitters can't reach out and pull this pitch, at least not without rolling over. Oneil Cruz is not most left-handed hitters.

From a production standpoint, Cruz is still getting himself acclimated to the Major League level. Even with the home run, Cruz is hitting .250/.250/.438 with an 88 wRC+. Still, he’s wasted no time in his pursuit of breaking Savant.

In Cruz’s very first game this season, he showed off just about every tool in his bag. His 112.9 mph, bases-clearing double was the hardest-hit ball by any Pirate all season. He recorded a sprint speed of 31.5 feet per second (30.0 feet per second is considered elite). To top it off, he recorded an assist that was thrown 96.7 mph, the hardest-thrown ball by an infielder this season.

When it comes to exit velocity, in particular, Cruz has already damaged his fair share of baseballs. If his 109.8 mph home run on Monday is included, then Cruz already has four batted balls that have been hit at least 110 mph this season, tied with Ke’Bryan Hayes for the most in that category on the Pirates. Cruz has played eight games. Hayes has played 65 games. Assuming health, Cruz won’t just be at the top of his team’s leaderboards, but those of the league.

“I’m definitely learning a lot, especially in the last week,” Cruz said. “Just growing a lot more knowledgeable in the strike zone over here at this level and becoming a lot smarter and wiser on what pitches I want to swing at and which ones I want to avoid swinging at.”