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It’s ‘bigger than baseball’: Nelson Cruz is not ready to hang it up

Sidelined by left eye inflammation, Nelson Cruz is finishing one of the worst seasons of his career. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

From the beginning, the numbers sagged and the aches piled up, making it fair to wonder if Nelson Cruz had finally reached his limit. The lack of power and production suggests as much. He turned 42 in July. In almost one full season with the Washington Nationals, he has missed time with back tightness, shoulder soreness and a knee contusion, among other minor injuries, and is currently sidelined by left eye inflammation that can lead to blurry vision when he tries to hit.

His on-base-plus-slugging percentage, .651, is his lowest since his first extended chance with the Texas Rangers in 2006. Cruz is, in sum, a shell of the player Washington thought it signed to a one-year, $15 million deal in March, back when it seemed possible — no, likely — that he could be flipped for prospects at the trade deadline.

Many signs point toward retirement after 18 seasons. But Cruz isn’t ready to walk away.

“If I don’t feel like I am having fun, I will leave, you know?” Cruz said last week by his locker at Nationals Park. On Monday, Cruz was not in the lineup before the Nationals and New York Mets were postponed by persistent storms. The game will be made up as part of a doubleheader starting at 4:10 p.m. Tuesday at Citi Field.

“Everybody is here for different reasons,” Cruz continued. “I play to win, to get to the championship, to win a World Series. That’s the ultimate goal that we share. But it is not just my career. It is for everyone around me, too. A lot of people depend on if I play and how I play.”

Cruz repeats that all of this — his career, his stats, his decision to stop or keep going — is “bigger than baseball.” And when he’s asked about instilling this perspective in younger players, he breaks into a huge smile.

The story is from November. Shortstop Wander Franco was about to sign an 11-year, $182 million contract with the Tampa Bay Rays. But before he agreed to it, he called Cruz, whom he played with for just 2½ months at the end of the previous season.

“Hey, Dad,” Cruz recalled Franco saying on the phone. “What do you think I should do?”

After explaining the importance of financial security, Cruz delivered his real message. He and Franco are from the Dominican Republic. If Franco took the deal, Cruz told him, it wasn’t only for the rookie and his immediate family. There would be playground teams in need of equipment. There would be a community to lift, its kids watching most of Franco’s at-bats.

Las Matas de Santa Cruz, Cruz’s hometown, looks far different than it did when he debuted for the Rangers. There are hospitals; there is a fire department; there are ambulances and more paved roads for them to drive on. This offseason, Cruz’s foundation plans to open a computer center to help plumbers and carpenters start their own businesses. He will juggle that project with serving as the Dominican Republic’s general manager for the World Baseball Classic.

“Many people have benefited from it,” Cruz said of his work in the Dominican. “And I believe, once I stop playing, that will be changed drastically. I won’t be able to provide like I used to. So there are different reasons that I keep pushing. But the most important one, I think, is just for the love of the game. When you love something this much, that doesn’t shut off so easily.”

If Cruz misses the Nationals’ final three games, he will have logged 10 homers and a team-best 64 RBI on the season. Manager Dave Martinez felt Cruz’s timing was often off, making it hard to elevate contact and catch up with high velocity. His average launch angle of 7.2 degrees was his lowest since Statcast began tracking it in 2015. He hit seven homers on fastballs after smacking 21 last year. He also whiffed on 41.5 percent of the breaking pitches he swung at.

Cruz doesn’t know what sort of market is waiting in free agency this offseason. He is hopeful yet keeping his expectations in check. Washington spent big on him to protect Juan Soto, influence an inexperienced clubhouse and potentially land a prospect or two in early August. So it would seem Cruz’s best shot at another major league deal is with a club in a similar situation — one that wants a veteran and has at-bats to offer at designated hitter.

“He has potential to go help and DH and put up some numbers again,” Martinez said. “But that’s totally up to him.”

Playoff implications

Washington is nowhere near the postseason picture, but the Mets are on the edge of being bumped to a wild-card series instead of winning the National League East. The Atlanta Braves’ magic number to take the division crown remains at one after their 4-0 loss to the Miami Marlins on Monday night, keeping New York alive. The Mets could still take the division with a miracle swing of luck: They have to sweep Washington as the Marlins sweep Atlanta.

Cory Abbott is slated to start Tuesday’s first game for the Nationals before Paolo Espino pitches the second. The Mets are expected to use Carlos Carrasco and Taijuan Walker, but they hadn’t announced an order Monday night.

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