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MLB phenom could rewrite record books, push 100 SB: ‘A freak of nature’

PHOENIX — Cincinnati Reds GM Nick Krall, standing in the front of the visiting dugout at Chase Field while talking to a reporter, looked toward 22-year-old shortstop Elly De La Cruz and suddenly gasped.

“Oh, my God, did you see that??’ Krall blurted out.

“Did you see what he just did?’

Cruz, on a dare by teammate Jonathan India, picked up a baseball standing on the right-field line, and heaved it clear across the outfield, above the lower level of seats, up and over the electronic advertising board, onto the stadium concourse.

Estimated distance: 430 feet, perhaps even 440 feet.

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“I was messing with him,’ India told USA TODAY Sports. “I said, ‘There’s no way you can do it, dude.’

“He was like, “Oh, really?’

“So he just fires the ball halfway up the stands. He didn’t even crow-hop it. I mean, I knew he could do it, but I just wanted to see it myself. It was incredible.’

The rest of the Reds players stood on the field laughing, knowing that they are watching the modern-day version of Bo Jackson without the Heisman Trophy.

While he is often compared to Fernando Tatis Jr. with his sheer athleticism and lanky body, De La Cruz’s awe factor is strikingly similar to Jackson’s.

There is not a player in baseball who has the combination of speed, power and arm strength of De La Cruz.

“It’s just unbelievable the stuff he can do, man,’ Reds reliever Emilio Pagan said. “He’s just so creative. I played with Tatis. There’s definitely a lot of similarities.

“They should have a little bit of a baseball combine. It’d be cool to see them match up.’

Said Reds pitcher Nick Martinez: “The guy is a freak of nature. You watch him play, and you forget he’s just 22 years old. You watch him, and almost every day he’s making some insane catches, he runs like a deer, and then you see the pop in his bat, and you say, ‘Holy crap!’

“You see him do crazy stuff all the time.’

No wonder De La Cruz is besieged by not only fans, but opposing players seeking autographs. He was heading for the weight room this week in Phoenix when he was stopped to sign baseballs for several Arizona Diamondbacks players.

It should be no different Thursday when the Reds visit Dodger Stadium for a four-game series, letting everyone know there’s another player in town besides Shohei Ohtani who might be rewriting the record books.

De La Cruz, with nine home runs and a major-league leading 26 stolen bases, is one only of five players in history to have nine or more homers and 25 stolen bases in any 40-game stretch.

The dude has more stolen bases than half of the teams in baseball.

He’s currently on pace to push 35 homers and 100 stolen bases. There hasn’t been a player who has stolen 100 bases in nearly a half-century, dating back to Vince Coleman of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1987.

“I never got to see Bo Jackson play,’ Reds veteran pitcher Brent Suter said, “but I’ve never seen anything like it. You watch him take BP, and he’s hitting balls out of the stadium. You watch him run, and his speed is out of this world, playing faster than even its reading. His in-game is better than even the measurables.’

‘Breaking’ Statcast

Sometimes, well, even the computers at Statcast can get caught up in the hyperbole.

He made a throw two weeks ago in San Diego that was measured at 106.9 mph, too quick for first baseman Jeimer Candelario to even get his glove up to catch it.

“All I know,’ Candelario said, “is that it was coming hard. He’s got a good arm, man. Just different.’

It would have been the hardest recorded throw in the Statcast era, but it was later announced there had been a glitch.

“But he threw it so hard, we kind of believed that 106.9 mph reading for awhile,’’ Suter said. “Oh, my gosh, it was so hard. It was one of the hardest throws ever from a shortstop, so we believed that reading. …

“He’s a freak of nature.’

De La Cruz, 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds, just laughs.

“I just enjoy baseball so much,’ he says. “I want to get better every day. And I want to better than anyone else doing it. I want to be the best.’

De La Cruz isn’t saying this to be boastful. He’s not trying to brag. He’s just letting you know what he’s feeling.

Everything he does is 100% genuine.

“He wants to be great,’ Suter said. “He wants to win. And he wants to do everything he can to help this team win a World Series … Everything is real.’

When the Reds players stroll in for a 7:10 p.m. home game at Great American Ball Park, they’ll find De La Cruz, already drenched in sweat, having arrived at noon to be the first in the weight room.

When India sits down and discusses the night’s opposing pitcher, De La Cruz has already studied the video and pored over the scouting reports, knowing what the pitcher’s arsenal, his release time, and his pick-off moves.

“The mental part of his game is something else,’ India says. “It’s pretty cool to watch.’’

When the coaching staff starts discussing defensive alignments before the start of a series, De La Cruz is fully attentive, knowing exactly where he should be shaded for each opposing hitter.

“Honestly, my favorite thing about him is his work ethic,’’ Pagan said. “His talent is off the charts, but so is his work ethic. To see somebody who’s so talented, and so young, and who has the makeup who you can tell genuinely wants to be great, that just jumps out at me.

“He’s got an attitude about him that he’s not satisfied with what he can do naturally, and just wants to get better at all aspects of the game. He’s the first one in the weight room. He’s constantly studying film on hitters. And he’s always working on his defense.

“The makeup, the work ethic, to go along with the natural ability, is just off the charts.’’

De La Cruz, who took the league by storm last year after making his major-league debut on June 6, badly struggled to even stay in the big leagues the second half of the season. He hit just .181 with a .272 on-base percentage and .355 slugging percentage, striking out 105 times in just 262 at-bats.

He did everything possible to make sure it would never happen again, and is hitting .258 with an .857 OPS this season, drawing 21 walks, just 14 fewer than in 98 games last season.

“He worked hard last year,’ Reds outfielder Will Benson said, “but the difference is how much more detailed and structured his work is. He’s working harder than just about anybody. And when he gets on base, man, I’ve never seen speed like that before in my life.’

Said Diamondbacks catcher Tucker Barnhart: “You got to be so careful with him. He gets a hit, he turns it into a double. He gets a walk, and the next thing you know he’s standing on third base.’’

De La Cruz still is striking out often, 55 times in 155 at-bats, but he also has 21 walks, just 14 fewer than he had all of last season.

“He’s done a really good job learning from what he struggled with last year,’ Reds outfielder Spencer Steer said. “Now, you’re seeing him really taking mature at-bats.

“He’s just a guy who wants to win. He wants to be a great player. And with that kind of talent, and that kind of mindset, it’s a pretty dangerous combination.’’

Really, the Reds will tell you, they’re just as impressed with De La Cruz the person as the ballplayer. They’ll talk about the respect he shows the coaches and veteran players. They’ll rave about his modesty. And if that time ever comes where he becomes the first 40-100 man in baseball history, well, they’re not convinced he’d even take pride in the achievement unless it helped the Reds earn a playoff berth.

This is a young man from the Dominican Republic who idolized Yankees Hall of Famer Derek Jeter (“I loved that guy’), not only how he played the game, but what he represented off the field. He wants to play every single game.

When he wasn’t in the starting lineup Wednesday for the first time this season, he took the news as if Reds manager David Bell demoted him to the minors (“He’s the boss, what can I say?’). He still kept his streak alive when he entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the eighth, and after a 2-1 loss to the D-backs, was the first in the weight room.

Learning a new language

“I thought if I learned English it would make it easier for everyone,’ De La Cruz said. “That’s what you guys speak in this country, English. So, I want to understand my teammates and coaches. If I don’t speak English, how can I understand them?’

The desire to learn a new language instead of letting everyone adjust to him, the Reds say, shows his desire of being the consummate teammate, as well.

“For him to take the time to really learn English so he can talk with us, talk with the coaches, and the fans,’ Steer said, “that’s pretty incredible. He didn’t have to do that, but he’s such a humble, down-to-earth guy. You could tell how important it was for him to learn English.’

The Reds, 18-25, know their future is Elly De La Cruz. They’re a young, athletic team that’s struggling this season, losing 15 of their last 19 games. They’re convinced one day they’ll be back in the postseason, winning their division for the first time since 2012.

And it will be De La Cruz leading the way.

“What impresses me the most about Elly is who Elly is as a person,’ Bell said. “He’s had a lot of success really fast, but he’s the same humble, respectful, intelligent person. For a young player who’s not in his native country, who’s not speaking his native language, and to be this centered is really impressive.

“He’s really the complete package, and I don’t ever see that changing.

“Believe me, his career is going to be pretty fun to watch.’’

Follow Nightengale on X: @Bnightengale

This post appeared first on USA TODAY

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