Reds reliever Fernando Cruz is more than his ‘gift from God’

CINCINNATI — After Tuesday night’s Cincinnati Reds victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, catcher Tyler Stephenson had a question for reliever Fernando Cruz: “How does it feel when they know what’s coming and they can’t hit it?”

“I said that’s a question I cannot even answer because I don’t know, this is a gift,” Cruz said of his split-finger fastball. “This is my gift and it’s something I cannot explain.”

Tuesday night, Cruz came in with one out, bases loaded and the tying run at the plate and got a strikeout and lineout to end the threat.

Wednesday, the tying run was at third base when Reds manager David Bell summoned Cruz from the bullpen. Again, there was one out, and this time there were runners at just second and third instead of loaded. Again, a strikeout and a ball to the outfield, inning over.

Both nights, the Reds built onto their lead after Cruz held it down and beat the Phillies, including Wednesday’s 7-4 victory.

“He just wants the ball,” Bell said. “He wants to do his part. He comes in fearless, believing in himself and getting it done.”

That belief has spread from Cruz to Bell to the entire Reds clubhouse and beyond. Cruz has appeared in 11 games this season, seven with runners on, and four of those have come with a runner on third. In the four games he’s entered with a runner on third, he’s allowed just one of those inherited runners to score. Overall, only two of the 13 runners he’s inherited have scored. The Reds have also won all four games when Cruz has come in with a runner on third, including three on the current homestand.

“We can punch that number and we know what we’re going to get from him, and that’s comforting in these tight-game situations,” Reds outfielder Will Benson said.

Both Tuesday and Wednesday, Cruz retired the first batter he faced with a strikeout, both times getting hitters to swing through a splitter, the pitch Cruz calls his “gift from God.”

When Cruz came in with the bases loaded to face the Phillies’ Trea Turner on Tuesday, he quickly got ahead of Turner with a ball and two strikes.

Injured Reds reliever Tejay Antone was in the Bally Sports TV booth Tuesday night and watched Cruz get to two strikes against Turner without the aid of his signature pitch, and when play-by-play announcer John Sadak asked whether it was time for the splitter, Antone said, “It’s a given.”

Antone added, “Trea Turner knows it’s coming and he’ll still swing at it.”


Antone was correct, Cruz threw the splitter, Turner swung-and-missed. Turner was indeed expecting a splitter, he said Wednesday, maybe not the one that seemingly stopped right before it got to the plate and dropped so much that it handcuffed catcher Tyler Stephenson, who had to deflect the ball and keep it in front of him.

“I figured I’d get one in that at-bat,” Turner said before Wednesday night’s game. “Especially seeing four pitches, I didn’t necessarily think he was going to throw me three sliders, but I knew it was only a matter of time before a splitter came.”

With two strikes this season, Cruz has gone to the splitter 86.5 percent of the time, including all five two-strike pitches Wednesday.

The split-finger fastball is a great two-strike pitch, especially with fewer than three balls because, by design, it shouldn’t be a strike, but it will look like one until the last moment.

“With him, a lot of times, you don’t see that thing until there are two strikes,” Maile said. “You don’t really get a chance to get a range finder.”

Of Cruz’s 75 splitters this season, only 19 have finished in the strike zone. Even with just more than a quarter of those pitches finishing in the strike zone, batters have swung at it three-quarters of the time.

“He sells the splitter pretty good,” Turner said. “(He) makes you feel like the heater’s coming.”

The other separator there is that if the batter thinks the splitter (average velocity of 82 mph) is coming, he could ramp up a fastball that not only doesn’t drop like the split but also averages 94.8 mph, a huge difference.

It was that pitch at 95.5 mph that he froze the Los Angeles Angels’ Jo Adel on Friday when Cruz entered the game with runners on second and third and no outs and a one-run lead. He then got out of the inning with his splitter that caught the bottom of the zone for a called third strike against Zach Neto.

All three of Cruz’s pitches come from a similar arm angle, and all could be considered fastballs of a sort — the split-fingered fastball, the four-seam fastball and the cut fastball.

Of those three pitches, only the four-seamer looks like another pitcher’s pitch. The other two? Well, they’re different.

The graph showing the average speed of his pitches looks like three distinct humps. The fastball is anywhere from 92 to 96 mph, the cutter 87 to 92 mph, and the splitter from 79 to 84.

The cutter moves in a way that Turner calls it a slider, Cruz a cutter and Stephenson calls it a cutter because Cruz does.

And then there’s the splitter, which Stephenson said he could call four times in a row and have what looks like four different pitches.

“It comes in like a knuckleball,” Maile said. “It doesn’t really profile the same way each time.”

Stephenson calls it a “knuckle puck.”

No matter the nomenclature, Cruz is coming on the mound with confidence in all three pitches, and Wednesday he left the mound with even more confidence, pumping his arms after getting Marsh to fly out.

It was a big win against one of the league’s best teams, and there was nobody who wanted to be on the mound in that critical moment more than Cruz.

“If you’re a baseball player or whatever sport you play and you don’t want that situation, I think you’re wrong,” Cruz said Wednesday night. “You want those situations. I’m embracing it, I’m having a lot of fun doing it.”

(Photo: Aaron Doster / Associated Press)

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