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Zulgad: This is 40? Nelson Cruz might be older than his manager but he is showing no signs of slowing down

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Minnesota Twins’ Nelson Cruz celebrates his solo home run against the Kansas City Royals during the fourth inning of a baseball game Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

MINNEAPOLIS —  The Twins’ signing of Nelson Cruz before the 2019 season was done with two purposes in mind. The first was because even though Cruz was aging, the 37 home runs he hit with Seattle in 2018 showed he still had pop in his bat. The second was because of the influence the veteran slugger could have on Miguel Sano on and off the field.

The latter portion of this has been hit-and-miss, literally. Sano certainly admires Cruz, but his underwhelming production at the plate and his propensity to strike out remain troubling issues. But when it comes to the former, Cruz has delivered more than anyone could have expected. That continued on Monday night at Target Field as Cruz hit two more home runs in the Twins’ 4-1 victory over the Kansas City Royals. The win gave the Twins three victories in the four-game series and increased their lead to 1.5 games over second-place Cleveland in the American League Central.

Cruz’s solo blasts — a 416-foot homer to left off Kris Bubic in the fourth inning and a 428-foot shot into the bullpen in left-center off Jake Newberry in the seventh inning — gave him eight homers on the season and 409 for his career to tie Mark Teixeira for 55th on the all-time list. Cruz’s eight home runs tied Barry Bonds (2007) and Hank Sauer (1958) for the most by a player 40-or-older within the first 23 games of a season.

Cruz had a remarkable first season with the Twins, slashing .311/.392/.639 with 41 home runs and 108 RBIs in 120 games. That made it a no-brainer for the Twins to pick up the club option they had on his contract for 2020. That was supposed to pay Cruz $12 million but his adjusted salary in this 60-game pandemic-shortened season is $4.4 million.

Cruz has more than earned that salary in the first 23 games. While many big-league hitters try to get their timing and look lost at the plate, the 40-year-old has slashed .354/.430/.695 with 23 RBIs in 23 games. His average, homers and RBIs all lead the Twins. Cruz’s two homers Monday marked the 36th multi-homer game of his career, tying Edwin Encarnacion for the seventh-most by a Dominican-born hitter in big-league history.

Cruz, who is known for the meticulous approach he takes to his craft and how well he takes care of his body, was asked in spring training about continuing to play beyond this season. This came after the Twins acknowledged during the winter they had engaged in discussions with his agent about a contract extension beyond this season.

“The typical player doesn’t last more than 30-something years so it feels like, I guess, a number nobody wants to pass,” Cruz said of continuing to play into his 40s. “It’s a restriction for everybody. I don’t see that in my mind. Everything you put in your mind is going to be positive or negative, whatever it is, and, in my case, I don’t see it (as a negative), I see it as a positive. I have experience, I’m healthy, so (that’s) why I’m still playing.”

Despite having the season interrupted by four-plus months, Cruz has been sharp since the Twins’ opener on July 24. He had three homers in the team’s season-opening series against the White Sox in Chicago and now has five homers in seven games against the Royals. This led some to question why the Royals were giving Cruz anything to hit by Monday night.

“Nelson is getting to a lot of different pitches in the zone to find the barrel,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “When you’re watching at ground level and you’re getting to see the actual adjustments he’s making during the at-bats, he’s not just up there swinging, he’s not just a power hitter who goes up there looking to hit home runs. He puts good under control swings on the ball. He knows what he’s up there looking for, he knows who he’s facing. He knows the guy that pitched tonight for them is going to ride the ball up in the zone and he’s choking up and fighting to get on top of pitches. It’s not happening by accident. The guy is very talented but he also makes fantastic adjustments.”

These are the types of adjustments (at least some of them) that the Twins would love to see Sano begin to make — Sano did have a double on Monday but also struck out twice and now has fanned 33 times in 61 at-bats — but Cruz has his approach down to a science.

“He has a few different approaches that he uses with different types of pitchers,” Baldelli said. “You see him very clearly changing what he’s doing because there are a few different methods that he can use. When he knows guys go up in the zone, he’s got a very different swing than when he knows guys are going to pitch him in or try to sink him down in the zone, or a breaking ball heavy situation. He’s a very intellectual guy and a guy that understands the game and pitchers and especially himself very, very well. It’s combining incredible ability with wisdom and a great mix and he brings it out there and does that very well every night.”

The question is how long can Cruz keep going? With the designated hitter possibly being adopted by the National League as soon as 2021, his career might not be close to being finished. The 38-year-old Baldelli certainly isn’t betting against him.

“I think the best thing about Nellie, and we kind of learn by watching people, he doesn’t get too far ahead,” Baldelli said. “He works and gives everything he has today and doesn’t get focused on next week or next year or five years from now. So I think that’s how he’s gotten to this point in his career. I would never bet against him because I know what he puts into it every single day. That’s why he’s still playing. You watch guys that have those careers that don’t slow down. Guys that last longer, guys that put up numbers year after year. Believe me, those are never the guys that are sitting around and watching TV all day. Eating whatever they want all the time. It’s a combination of a lot of different things I think, but I’ll always bet on Nellie.”