A year of Elly: Reds star De La Cruz homers in anniversary of debut and sparks another win

CINCINNATI — The crowd roared at Great American Ball Park in the bottom of the third inning of Thursday night’s game against the Chicago Cubs as Cincinnati Reds shortstop Elly De La Cruz came to the plate with two on and no outs.

It wasn’t quite the response he got on June 6, 2023, but it was still the loudest reaction from the home fans of any Reds player. In the stands were every type of jersey bearing his number, 44, and his name — from the ones that matched the white home jersey he wore Thursday, to the team’s black City Connects, the road gray, the red alternate and any number of either store-bought or even homemade t-shirts with his name and/or photo.

In one year, the face of the Reds’ franchise moniker has been transferred from future Hall of Famer Joey Votto to De La Cruz. On the first anniversary of his debut Thursday, De La Cruz showed again just why he has gotten that reaction at every game since last year. He blasted the first pitch he saw from Cubs starter Javier Assad in the third inning into the stands adjacent to the visitor’s bullpen in right field for a three-run home run, helping lead the team to an 8-4 victory over the Cubs and pushing the Reds to their fifth straight win and out of last place in the National League Central.

It was De La Cruz’s 11th home run of the season and 24th of his burgeoning career.

The 22-year-old switch-hitting shortstop has yet to ascend to his spot as the game’s best player, but you could argue he’s the game’s most exciting player and one that has helped change the feeling and thoughts about a Reds franchise that hadn’t made the playoffs in a full season since he was 11.

“I don’t know the exact numbers, but we’ve had front-row seats the past year,” said Reds catcher Tyler Stephenson, a former first-round pick who just four years ago homered in his first career big-league at-bat. “When he’s rolling, it always seems to wow you and surprise you every day.”

In the last year and a day, De La Cruz has played 161 games and had 621 at-bats. Over that time, he’s hit .237/.313/.420 with 24 home runs, 73 RBIs and 67 stolen bases. According to Elias Sports Bureau, he’s the only player since 1900 to accumulate 65 or more steals and 50 or more extra-base hits in his first calendar year in the big leagues.

When asked if he was going to celebrate the anniversary after the win, De La Cruz just laughed and said: “I’m going to sleep — I need rest for tomorrow.”

With all eyes on him and the highest of expectations, De La Cruz has hardly shied away, adding to his gold chains, continuing his all-out style, playing every day and, perhaps most importantly, continuing to improve.

“I think he’s even growing, still,” Reds manager David Bell said, referring to the 6-foot-5 De La Cruz physically. “I don’t know if we could’ve drawn it up any better as far as all the experiences he’s had so far — a lot of success, a lot of attention. The things we look at close, the way he’s handling it all, I don’t see Elly changing much as far as who he is as a person.”

Bell said De La Cruz’s work ethic has gotten better in the year, as have his skills.

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Elly De La Cruz’s joy for the game hasn’t diminished since he debuted a year ago. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

Hunter Greene, who was picked second in the 2017 draft at just 17 years old after being touted as the future of baseball, knows about expectations and trying to deal with them while also playing baseball at the highest level. He has been impressed with his teammate’s first year, as well.

“He’s extremely level-headed and grounded,” said Greene, who pitched into the seventh inning to pick up his fourth victory of the season on Thursday. “He comes to the field every day to get his work in, he comes early — I think someone in his position, it’s very easy to get complacent and not continue to put the work in and just expect to go out there and put the numbers up.”

De La Cruz is far from a finished product. He still strikes out too much, with his strikeout rate still above 30 percent (31.5 percent), but seeing his walk rate improve from 8.2 percent to 10.5 percent this year.

In the field, he’s had 11 errors this season, but six of those were in the first month. And then, well, there are the plays that he makes in the field that few without his combination of size, speed, athleticism and arm strength can make, like a jump throw from the grass in Colorado on Wednesday.

“He’s one of those players that he does things — and I know that we all notice it, but I think we’re starting to get used to it already and he makes extraordinary plays look relatively easy — and that’s one,” Bell said. “It was incredible. It’s the depth and the arm strength, without a ton of effort. Those plays are fun because they just happen.”

Less spectacular, maybe, was a play he made in the seventh inning Sunday, when Cubs catcher Miguel Amaya hit a ball 111.2 mph off the bat that De La Cruz got a good jump to his right on, fielded cleanly and was able to make an easy throw to first for the second out of the inning.

It’s just another day for De La Cruz, who has added another thing to his arsenal in his first year — English.

Signed at 16 years old out of the Dominican Republic, De La Cruz has worked on his second language as hard as his game coming up. While he spoke English with teammates and to others in private before coming to the big leagues, this year he’s challenged himself to do interviews in English. At times, he still uses translator Jorge Merlos to help with some words, both from reporters and in his answers, to give the most complete answer he can. It’s been admirable and has not gone unnoticed by teammates, fans and media.

Thursday was another day in the journey of De La Cruz. The Reds, who stood at 20-30 on May 23, have won 10 of their 13 games since, including sweeps of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado Rockies and a series victory in Chicago over the Cubs to fight their way out of the cellar at 30-33.

A year ago, they were 27-33 entering De La Cruz’s debut. The Reds won De La Cruz’s debut and 16 of his first 18 games.

While the team has struggled mightily this season, there was a familiar feeling in the team’s clubhouse following Thursday’s game — with music blasting, newly installed lights lining part of the clubhouse and a lit marquee that read “MVP Elly” for the night’s performance.

“When he’s playing like that, he’s tough to beat,” Stephenson said. “Everyone’s fine. It’s fun, it’s a good energy every day. That’s how it felt last year.”

(Photo of De La Cruz celebrating his third-inning home run: Jeff Dean / Getty Images)

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