ARLINGTON, Texas — Nelson Cruz fit right back in with the Texas Rangers after completing his 50-game drug suspension.
The All-Star slugger was reinstated from the restricted list Monday by the Rangers, who immediately put him in their lineup. Cruz will bat sixth as the designated hitter for the AL wild card tiebreaker game against Tampa Bay.
“I feel really confident right now,” Cruz said before the game. “I’m going to enjoy this moment. Happy to be back. Happy to be with my teammates. It’s a blessing to see the reception they gave me.”
It will be the first major league game for Cruz since Aug. 4. That was the day before his suspension stemming from Major League Baseball’s investigation of the Biogenesis anti-aging clinic, accused of distributing banned performance-enhancing drugs.
Cruz was among 14 players disciplined by MLB this year in the Biogenesis case. Only Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez appealed his suspension.
The return of Cruz comes eight weeks to the day he was suspended. He has acknowledged publicly that he made “an error in judgment” in the wake of a gastrointestinal infection that wasn’t properly diagnosed over a few months before he reported to spring training in 2012. Cruz lost 40 pounds during that time. He has never offered more specifics.
After serving his penalty, Cruz is ready to move forward and focus on the field.
“I think I’ve been doing a pretty good job,” he said. “Whatever is going outside of baseball, just keep it outside.”
Cruz seemed at ease during batting practice, when he hit a few balls over the walls in a session he described as being “OK. It wasn’t like great.” He was planning to take more cuts in the indoor batting cage.
Rays manager Joe Maddon expressed no issue with Cruz being eligible.
“My job is to get my players ready. He’s served his punishment, and he’s eligible to play. I can’t worry about that. I spend most of my energy on things like the bullpen,” Maddon said. “We just played A-Rod at home.”
Texas designated outfielder Joey Butler for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster.
The Rangers won their last seven scheduled games of the regular season and needed every one of those victories to force the first wild card tiebreaker in the majors since 2007.
A 163rd regular-season game provided a chance for the return of Cruz. Before flying to Texas on Saturday night, he had been playing games against mostly minor leaguers and prospects in the Arizona Instructional League.
Cruz finished 9-for-27 with five doubles, a homer and nine RBIs in eight games in Arizona.
Once Cruz told manager Ron Washington that he felt good and was loose, the slugger was back in the lineup.
“He said he was ready to go. I didn’t talk to anyone in [Arizona]. I know Nelson Cruz,” Washington said. “If you throw something in the wrong spot, I expect to jump up and down. … It’s the threat, it’s the presence, it’s what he does for everybody else just being in that lineup.”
General manager Jon Daniels said Cruz kept himself ready to play “as good as you can.” Daniels said the at-bats got better during that time and that Cruz was swinging the bat well.
“All along, we knew we’re probably a better club with him available,” Daniels said.
The Rangers were 29-21 without Cruz, who hit .269 with 27 homers and 76 RBIs in 108 games before his suspension.
Washington opted to have Cruz as the designated hitter for his return rather than put him in the outfield. The Rangers stuck with hot-hitting Craig Gentry in left, Leonys Martin in center and Alex Rios in right. Rios was acquired from the Chicago White Sox four days after Cruz was suspended.
“The way those three guys out there have been running balls down, I’m not changing that right now,” Washington said. “We’ll use Nelson’s bat, and his threat.”