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Nelson Cruz, loving his new home, bashes another homer for Birds

Baltimore Orioles Nelson Cruz draws a walk in

Baltimore Orioles Nelson Cruz draws a walk in the fifth inning against the Yankees. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Nelson Cruz drilled a high fly to the opposite field, and before the ball even nestled in the rightfield seats, out came a loud chorus of boos from the Yankee Stadium crowd.

Frustration, certainly, because the two-run shot put the Orioles up three in the fourth inning Saturday. But there likely was added venom because of whose bat the ball left:

A hitter who was suspended 50 games last season because of suspected performance-enhancing drug use. A hitter who had just crushed his major league-leading 23rd homer in a 6-1 win.

"You always feel like you have something to prove, but it's mostly for myself," said Cruz, who went 1-for-4 with a walk. "I don't feel like I have to do well to prove anybody wrong."

Cruz was among 13 players, including Alex Rodriguez, who were suspended last August by Major League Baseball for their links to Biogenesis, a Miami-based clinic that allegedly supplied PEDs to athletes. Cruz, who was an impending free agent with the Rangers, accepted the suspension so his punishment wouldn't carry over into this season. He said then that he got involved with Biogenesis during the 2011 offseason, after a gastrointestinal infection made him lose 40 pounds.

The 33-year-old remained unsigned until late February, when he inked a one-year, $8 million contract with the Orioles. That deal has been a boon for Baltimore.

"As a baseball player, you play on a daily basis and it doesn't matter what you did yesterday, you have to move forward and perform," Cruz said. "It's the same way with this. I try to stay in the present."

Cruz is batting .299 with a .974 OPS and is on pace to set career highs in home runs (51) and RBIs (133). He blasted 13 homers in May and is among the leading vote-getters for the All Star Game.

Cruz said the Orioles "embraced me as family" and his comfort has contributed to the success.

"He's having as good an offensive year as anybody and we all pull for him," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "None of us would like to have our lives judged by our worst decision."

The natural assumption would be that a player who was caught and punished for PED use wouldn't be so brazen or foolish to use a banned substance immediately after returning from a lengthy suspension. But skepticism wouldn't be unfounded, given the recent history in sports.

So Cruz's offensive surge can be perceived in a number of ways. Coincidence? An indictment of the testing procedures? Or, in teammate Adam Jones' estimation: simply a story of redemption.

"He knew what he was doing, but he learned from it and took full responsibility, as a man should," said Jones, adding that Cruz is well-liked in the clubhouse. "With what he's doing now, he's letting everybody know, hey, I can still play this game at a very high level. I don't need whatever it was."

Cruz, a two-time All Star, was hitting .266 with 27 homers and 76 RBIs in 109 games last season before the suspension.

Camden Yards historically has been a hitter-friendly ballpark. But Cruz has done most of his damage elsewhere, hitting .333 with 16 homers on the road. He insisted his strategy and approach at the plate haven't changed and the statistical spike, he said, can only be attributed to "being healthy and feeling good."

As for the suspicion that likely will hover over his career, the slugger said it no longer matters to him. It doesn't seem to bother the Orioles, either.

"We all have some things we'd like to have a do-over on," Showalter said, "and acquiring Nelson definitely isn't one of them."

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