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Orioles teammates happy to give Nelson Cruz a second chance

Baltimore Orioles outfielder Nelson Cruz, center, celebrates in

Baltimore Orioles outfielder Nelson Cruz, center, celebrates in the dugout after scoring on a double by Chris Davis during the third inning of a spring training game against the Toronto Blue Jays in Sarasota, Fla., on Saturday, March 1, 2014. Credit: AP / Gene J. Puskar

SARASOTA, Fla. - Without question, there will be lingering effects from the Biogenesis scandal that rocked baseball.

The Orioles, for instance, could be big beneficiaries in 2014.

"I think we got a steal of a deal," said reigning major league home run champion Chris Davis, referring to Baltimore's signing of free agent Nelson Cruz for the bargain-basement price of $8 million.

Cruz, one of 12 players suspended last August for 50 games after being linked to the purchase of performance-enhancing drugs, had turned down a $14.1 million qualifying offer from his previous team, the Rangers, before his suspension.

Cruz also lost $2.7 million of last year's $10-million salary. But he said the most difficult part of the experience was abandoning his teammates in the heat of the pennant chase.

"Everything was tough, but I guess [the toughest] was the day I had to leave the team," he said. "We were in the race and we closed [the season] one game behind Oakland. It was bad timing for my team."

Cruz hit .266 with 27 homers and 76 RBIs in 109 games last season on his way to becoming an All-Star for the second time. His best year was 2009, when he homered 33 times and stole 20 bases; he's averaged 27 homers and 81 RBIs during the last five seasons.

"He makes the lineup that much better," said third baseman Manny Machado, who worked on hitting with Cruz in Miami after the 2012 season. "Our top-six batters were already top All-Star (vote-getters). He'll help us out offensively and defensively."

Cruz figures to provide protection in the order for Davis, although in his first spring training start on Saturday against the Blue Jays, manager Buck Showalter plugged him into the second spot in the order, hoping to get him an additional at-bat.

"It's great to be part of this organization and part of this lineup," said Cruz, who walked twice in his first three plate appearances. "There's not many teams you can mention that can out-hit us."

It didn't take long for the Orioles to see how the addition of Cruz might upgrade a batting order that also includes righthanded slugger Adam Jones, switch-hitting catcher Matt Wieters, outfielder Nick Markakis and shortstop J.J. Hardy.

With two outs and the bases empty in the third inning against Patchogue-Medford product Marcus Stroman, David Lough beat out an infield roller to second base. Cruz then worked a walk on a 3-and-2 pitch before Davis drilled a ball deep to the gap in left-center for a two-run double.

"Like clockwork," Davis said.

"I was glad to see [Cruz] work that at-bat right there. I think that's what it's all about these first few days: Get in there and see some pitches. You just can't simulate this stuff. You've got to turn on the competition."

Showalter, whose Orioles finished 85-77 last season, said that Cruz's introductory news conference, attended by many Orioles regulars, sent "a pretty good message" that teammates are accepting of Cruz and his history.

"None of us like to have our whole life judged by our worst decision," Showalter said. "The lack of intelligence comes when you repeat the mistake."

Cruz, 33, said he understands that he has work to do in order to keep his current teammates and new fan base on his side.

"It's a challenge," he said, "but I'm always up for a challenge. I always try to do [my best] in whatever I have control [of]."

The cozy confines of Orioles Park at Camden Yards, shouldn't hurt Cruz, who carries a .333 career average there.

"There's not a bad ballpark for Nelson," Showalter said. "He doesn't need a hitters' ballpark to do some damage. When Nelson squares a ball up it doesn't really matter where we're playing."

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