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Senior standouts return with something to prove

Pasco's Lee Cruz has worked to improve his fielding, his average and his power.

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2002

DADE CITY -- Lee Cruz is already proud to have much in common with his older brothers, Raul and Alex.

Both were middle infielders at Pasco, strong fielders and stronger hitters who earned all-conference honors and are now continuing their careers in the professional ranks.

Cruz can recall when Raul was a senior and Alex a freshman and the two took the Pirates to the state championship game. He fondly remembers three seasons later, when Alex was a senior and he was a freshman, both hitting over .480 and turning a crisp double play but not making it out of their district tournament.

Now, Lee Cruz is the senior, returning as the county's steadiest hitter and wondering how his final season at Pasco will play out.

"I'm kind of glad it's here," said Cruz, an all-conference shortstop last year after batting .485 with 21 RBIs. "It's my year. But there's also a lot of pressure."

That pressure comes not only with his last name, but with the numbers he put up the past three years. His average was above .500 for much of his freshman year, finishing at .480, and he drove in 33 runs as a second baseman.

He has worked with Alex on his arm strength and his foot speed, two areas key to improving his defense. It was a line drive that flew past Cruz that brought in both runs in a 2-1 loss to Palatka in last year's opening-round loss.

The senior was clearly motivated by the untimely mistakes.

"Lee had one of his worst games, but he's been the guy that gives us the punch when we need it since he came here," said coach Ricky Giles.

"Year in and year out, he's going to hit .450, if not .500. He hits and hits, and he sparks everyone else on the field."

Cruz is worried that he won't be as insulated in the Pirates lineup, allowing opponents to pitch around him, but Giles said this year's squad might be better offensively than last year's district champions.

"I think we can hit the baseball better than we could a year ago," said Giles.

First baseman Matt Prowant, leftfielder Anton Standifer and centerfielder Orlando Rosales will hit around Cruz, who will bat third.

"And when pitchers try to pitch around him, they'll find out that can be a mistake, too."

Cruz would like to follow his brothers' footsteps in playing professionally.

Raul is playing in the independent leagues. Alex is entering his second full season in the Pittsburgh Pirates' minor-league chain.

With another year like he's had at Pasco, his coach said that's well within Cruz's abilities.

"He can hit with the wooden bat as well as anybody," Giles said. "He brings a lot, and you know he's going to play ball from sunup to sundown."

In addition to his defense, Cruz would like to show more power as a senior.

He hit three home runs last year, but found his swing was better suited to the road. The left-field line at Death Valley runs 325 feet, but Cruz is confident he will hit more home runs this season.

"We have a good defense, and if the pitchers throw strikes, we'll be fine," Cruz said.

And when a .485 hitter is focused on improving his batting average, he could be in for quite a senior year, even by his brothers' standards.

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