KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — There may have been 30 people inside Kauffman Stadium on Tuesday with a view of the field, including a couple of workers who were busy hosing off seats hours before the game, yet all would occasionally turn to see where the ball landed when they heard the crack of the bat.
Inside the cage, hat flipped backward a la Ken Griffey Jr. and with a left-handed swing nearly as sweet, was the hottest thing to hit baseball in quite some time. Elly De La Cruz pounded ropes into the stadium’s massive alleys and soared shots that rattled around in the outfield seats or splashed into the stadium fountains.
An hour later, De La Cruz finally walked toward the visiting dugout with a few of his Cincinnati Reds teammates.
It was 2:58 p.m. First pitch was still more than four hours away.
Rarely do players widely considered baseball’s top prospect exceed expectations from Day 1. But even rarer is a talent like De La Cruz, the 21-year-old switch-hitting infielder whose first week in the major was the stuff of legend.
In his first big league series, De La Cruz annihilated a 92 mph fastball from Noah Syndergaard, the ball landing some 458 feet away and one row from leaving Great American Ball Park entirely. In the same game against the Dodgers, the 6-foot-5 phenom went from home to third on a triple faster than anyone this season. He’s even thrown a 96.6 mph laser to first base for an out.
De La Cruz is only the second player since at least 1900 to have a single, double, triple, homer and stolen base within their first three games, according to Elias Sports Bureau. The other was Bill Bruton of the Milwaukee Braves in 1953.
“Yeah,” Reds manager David Bell acknowledged, “there’s things that he’s done on the field that are extremely impressive. There’s no question about that. The fun part has been a lot of what he’s been able to do so far had led to helping us be able to win.”
That’s something that hasn’t happened around Cincinnati lately.
The Big Red Machine rusted away decades ago, and while there have been moments of unexpected joy — that 1990 World Series title bookended by losing seasons — heartbreak has been the norm. The Reds lost 100 games last season, their most since 1982, and have had losing records seven of the past eight full seasons; their only playoff trip during that span came during the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season, when they went 31-29 and were swept in the wild-card round.
There have been talents over the years that have had Cincinnati buzzing, and Joey Votto and Johnny Cueto are among those that panned out. Just as many never lived up to the hype: Brandon Larson, Christopher Gruler and Ryan Wagner among them.
Perhaps that fine line between success and failure is why De La Cruz was back at the ballpark so early Tuesday.
He had gone 0 for 5 in a series opener against the Kansas City Royals, striking out twice and looking lost and confused, but already he was building his confidence back. With shades riding high on his ball cap, yet never wiggling his head was so still, he continually pounded balls to all parts of the field as a handful of teammates watched.
“There’s definitely adjustment. There’s a transition,” Bell said. “He wants to make sure he’s doing the right thing around the clubhouse. This is all very new. Again, I keep going back to the ease of the transition. A lot of that has to do with how well he was prepared by people throughout our organization, and just in general, not being afraid to ask questions.”
De La Cruz has been with the Reds since 2018, when he signed as an international free agent at 16 years old. He made his pro debut the following year in the Dominican Summer League, but he didn’t play at all in 2020 when the minor league season was canceled by the pandemic. He was still playing rookie ball two years ago before finally graduating to the Class-A level.
By that point, though, his ability had become apparent.
De La Cruz split time last year between Class-A Dayton and Double-A Chattanooga, where he impressed enough to represent the Reds in the All-Star Futures Game. When autumn rolled around, the club put him on their 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, then watched him impress again this past spring training before sending him to Triple-A Louisville.
He hit .298 with 12 homers, 36 RBIs and 11 stolen bases there before an injury to Nick Senzel opened a spot in Cincinnati.
“I’ve had a lot of Dominican guys reach out to me, congratulate me, tell me to keep going — ‘This is just the start,’” said De La Cruz, whose large family of five brothers and three sisters has been following his journey in the Dominican Republic.
The Diamondbacks’ Ketel Marte and the Pirates’ Oneil Cruz are among those that have reached out to him.
“They both congratulated me and told me to keep going,” De La Cruz said.
Unlike so many Reds prospects over the years, who had weighty expectations placed entirely on their shoulders, De La Cruz doesn’t have to go it alone. Matt McLain is in the top five in All-Star voting, fellow infielder Spencer Steer gets regular playing time and another rookie, Andrew Abbott, has barged his way into the starting rotation.
They form a young core that is fun to watch. It’s versatile, dynamic and portends big things for the future.
Kind of like De La Cruz, who is at the center of it all.
“What can I say? I’m just here trying to give my team a chance to win,” he said, “and put in my best effort out there.”