Elly De La Cruz, Elly De La Cruz, Elly De La Cruz [608x342]
Elly De La Cruz, Elly De La Cruz, Elly De La Cruz [608x342] (Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports)

Nadal draws No 4 Zverev to start French farewell

When Cincinnati Reds shortstop Elly De La Cruz burst onto the scene a season ago, his every move became an instant highlight reel. He helped reenergize a fan base starving for a winner by displaying a rare combination of power and speed while making Reds games must-see TV in the process.

After all, who else can lead the league in sprint speed, hit a ball 119.2 mph and throw it 97.9 mph across the infield?

But for all the sizzle that came with a debut season that vaulted the Reds into postseason contention, De La Cruz's final numbers -- a .235/.300/.410 slash line -- didn't quite live up to the hype and his team finished two games out of the National League's final playoff spot.

"We were one game away the final weekend," second baseman Jonathan India said. "It stung us. We could have been the Diamondbacks. It sat with me all offseason. I hate losing more than I like winning."

This year, the focus in Cincinnati is about turning all of that flash into results that will have the Reds playing postseason baseball for the first time since 2020 -- and it, of course, begins with their budding superstar.

"It definitely got more intense and lively when we started winning," outfielder Spencer Steer said. "It all started with Elly getting called up and running off 12 straight. It just shows that the town wants a winning baseball team. They deserve one. It's been a while.

After an offseason of hard work, which included time spent honing his hitting with former major leaguer Fernando Tatis Sr., De La Cruz is providing star level production for a team with the NL's fifth-best record. Sure, he'll still show up on the "SportsCenter" Top 10 plenty this season, but what has the Reds excited is his early showing at the plate.

In 23 games, De La Cruz has a .313/.412/.651 slash line that adds up to the fourth-best OPS in MLB at 1.063. Perhaps most encouraging is that he has managed to cut his strikeout rate and nearly double his walk rate while not sacrificing that game-changing combination of power and speed -- and all of this has come just months after his 22nd birthday.

"Way, way, way ahead of probably 99 percent of players his age that have had the experience level that he has," Reds manager David Bell said. "It's incredible what he's doing.

"He's going to be developing for years to come and for him to handle himself the way he does -- with a lot of attention -- we couldn't be happier. And what he's doing every day to get better."

Instead of trying to change De La Cruz's approach to rush the process, the club cited time and experience as his major needs and encouraged him to continue being himself in his development. They saw a player willing to learn and weren't surprised when he connected with Tatis Sr. on his own in a search for some guidance.

Tatis has worked with players in the past, most notably reigning NL MVP Ronald Acuna Jr., and it's his simple message that De La Cruz credits for his early production at the plate.

"Be in control," De La Cruz said. "Control yourself. He gave me a lot of advice. I learned a lot from him."

De La Cruz indicated he wants to make the strike zone "a little smaller" for the opposing pitcher, and in the early going, he has reduced his strikeout-to-walk rate in half from his debut season.

"He's worked so hard this spring," India said. "He wants to be consistent. He wants to be a superstar. He has that ability. We all see that."

But for the Reds to finish the season where they want to, they know that it's about getting performance from the players around De La Cruz as well, something the organization opened its wallets to address this offseason while also leaning into the exciting play of their young core to sell veterans on coming to Cincinnati.

"The whole city was on fire for this team. They play hard. It's fast, physical baseball. It was very evident the city was falling in love with this team." reliever Brent Suter said. "I told my wife ... this was already No. 1 on my free agent list and now it's by far No. 1. This is a fun team. It was very evident from the other side, the bond kept getting stronger and stronger there."

Keeping that close knit feeling while integrating veteran additions starts with De La Cruz's running mate on the left side of the infield. The biggest splash of Cincinnati's winter came when Jeimer Candelario joined the Reds on a three-year, $45 million contract. The third baseman is a ready-made mentor in a young clubhouse as a former top prospect who finally came into his own the past few seasons -- and has made connecting with De La Cruz a priority.

"He likes to listen," Candelario said. "He's a learner. You have to give him time. Playing every single day in the big leagues is going to allow him to get better."

That mix of needing time to mature while also being counted on to perform at the highest level is a common feeling in a Reds clubhouse that features three players who finished in the top seven of NL Rookie of the Year voting a season ago -- with Steer and Matt McLain joining De La Cruz.

"We're not afraid to make mistakes," Steer said. "We're going to go out and play fearlessly."

That mindset energized the franchise at the major league level a year ago, fueled the front office during the offseason and if the player who most embodies it -- Elly De La Cruz -- produces, could have the Reds playing into October.