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Oneil Cruz in Much Better Spot at Pirates Spring Training

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Oneil Cruz, Pittsburgh Pirates

BRADENTON Fla. — Oneil Cruz was back on the field smiling for the first full-squad day under the sunny skies at Pittsburgh Pirates’ spring training.

It’s almost hard to believe that 10 months ago, Cruz was being helped off the field at PNC Park after a home plate collision with Chicago White Sox catcher Seby Zavala.

The injury resulted in a fractured left ankle for Cruz, a surgery that ultimately cost him his season after playing in nine games to begin the year.

It’s been a long road back for Cruz to return to full health, but he says he’s ready to go.

“I think I’m in a way better spot this year because I’ve been working so hard,” Cruz said through interpreter and Pirates’ coach Stephen Morales. “I had so much time to work on different stuff that I’m in a better spot this year.”

Cruz was fielding grounders from his usual shortstop position during infield drills and faced right-hander Luis Ortiz in a live bullpen on field No. 4 at Pirate City. It was the second live bullpen for Cruz this spring. He also faced 2023 All-Star Mitch Keller over the weekend.

Nobody quite looks like himself at this stage of spring training, Cruz especially considering how much time he missed last season.

Still, Cruz simply being back on the field is another sign of progress after a significant injury.

“I put in a lot of work in the offseason and right after I got hurt,” he said. “You’re trying your best and your hardest to get back on the field as soon as possible. I put in a lot of work to be where I’m at right now.”

The comeback for Cruz wasn’t linear. The initial projections pegged a return from his ankle surgery at some point in August.

On top of it, there are the mental hurdles that need to be cleared. Given the cause of the injury, sliding is going to take some getting used to again, but Cruz was able to slide during a Dominican instructional league game over the winter.

Running was another hurdle Cruz had to clear. Speed is a critical attribute for Cruz, and he feels like he’s — no pun intended — back up to speed.

“I lost my confidence on running because that surgery was on my leg,” he explained. “At the beginning, that’s what I struggled with, just to be able to run again like I used to. But now I feel 100%. I’m in a good spot.”

It will always be a wonder how much different the Pirates would have looked last year if Cruz was healthy for a full season.

Without his services for essentially the whole year, the Pirates showed a 14-win improvement from 2022. They did this largely with a revolving door at shortstop in his absence.

With his mighty presence back in the lineup next year, Cruz feels like the Pirates will be able to do even more winning.

“Me being in the lineup will help the team a lot,” he said. “Last year, I missed it, and I know I was missed by the team not being in the lineup. I know I can contribute a lot to the team and get more wins, that’s for sure.”

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