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Pirates hoping Oneil Cruz can hit more balls into Allegheny River after 445-foot homer vs. Rays

Pittsburgh Pirates' Oneil Cruz hits a home run during the first inning of a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays, Saturday, June 22, 2024, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Matt Freed)

PITTSBURGH — Oneil Cruz’s tools can be breathtaking.

The arm that lights up the radar gun on throws from deep in the hole. The long legs under his 6-foot-7 frame that seem to carry the Pirates shortstop around the bases in seemingly a handful of steps.

Nothing, however, tantalizes like Cruz’s power. His swing is a series of levers, levers that sometimes struggle to work in unison.

When they do however — as they did in the first inning of a 4-3 win over Tampa — all the doubts about Cruz’s ability to be a consistent difference-maker vanish are replaced with wonder.

Tampa Bay’s Zach Eflin tried to fool Cruz by throwing a first-pitch curveball and Cruz sent it soaring over the 21-foot-high Clemente Wall in right field. The ball sailed over the concourse and the slope behind it that runs down to the Allegheny River.

When it finally splashed into the water 445 feet from home plate, the Pirates had tied the game and Cruz had offered a reminder that for as much work as there remains to be done, he remains one of the more gifted and unique players in the majors.

The drive marked the sixth time a ball hit the river on the fly since PNC Park opened in 2001 and the 76th overall to make its way — by bounce, roll or otherwise — into the water.

The crowd inside the roasting ballpark — the temperature at first pitch was 95 degrees — roared in delight. It says something about the pregame power displays that Cruz puts on regularly that his teammates mostly shrugged.

While rookie pitcher Jared Jones called it “probably the farthest hit ball I’ve ever seen in person,” catcher Jason Delay practically yawned.

“I’ve been watching him hit balls into the river in all the time,” Delay said, thinking of batting practice. “So, it’s fun to watch.”

Particularly when it counts. Asked if he thought it was going to end up sailing over the boats that moor themselves near the ballpark during the summer, Cruz took a long pause to think about it before shaking his head.

“No,” he said after his 10th homer of the season. “But I definitely knew it was a home run.”

It’s hardly the first time Cruz has tested the outer limits of a stadium. When he was at Double-A Altoona, one of his moonshots crashed into “The Skyliner” wooden coaster beyond the right-field wall.

“I knew right away it was going to hit the roller coaster,” Cruz said with a boyish grin.

The reality with Cruz is that the game at times can come easy to him. Everything he does can seem effortless.

“He continues to do really special things,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton.

The key going forward is trying to have that specialness show up regularly. Cruz’s home run ended a 1-for-13 skid. He’s hitting .242 and his 31 RBIs rank a respectable second on the team, particularly considering the 25-year-old Cruz missed almost all of last season with a broken left ankle.

The problem is, the Pirates aren’t scoring nearly enough to supplement a pitching staff that has budding 22-year-old aces Jones and Paul Skenes as well as veteran Mitch Keller, who is making a run at a second straight All-Star appearance.

Pittsburgh’s offensive numbers languish in the bottom half of the National League, the main reason the Pirates have been plodding along a just under .500 as midseason nears.

General manager Ben Cherington spent 20-plus minutes on Saturday admitting his team needs to score more runs while remaining vague about just how aggressive the Pirates might be on the trade market.

Cherington believes the easiest path forward is for the players on the roster to produce more regularly. Those six giddy seconds in which Cruz’s ball started in one structure and landed not too far from the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers were great.

Yet what the Pirates don’t need are the occasional tape-measure shots. They need the ball to go over the fence more often. Doesn’t matter if it’s by one foot, or 100.

“Once it goes over the fence, I don’t care where it lands,” Shelton said. “It really doesn’t matter. As long as it goes very the yellow barrier, it can land in the first row or land in the Allegheny, it doesn’t matter to me. It counts the same.”

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