For The Madera Tribune
Former Liberty pitcher J.J. Santa Cruz led the Canada Collegiate Summer League in strikeouts for the Moose Jaw Miller Express in 2015. He would use that experience for a successful college career and now a three-year professional baseball career.
With his former Liberty Hawks teammate Connor Brogdon hitting the Major Leagues this season, J.J. Santa Cruz hopes his time will come soon.
Santa Cruz reached the Triple-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants last season and hoped for another chance to reach the ‘bigs’ this season before the coronavirus hit.
“I want to show I could play with the big boys,” he said. “I was ready to roll. I had a good couple of spring training outings, but this thing screwed everything up on how I thought the season would go.”
Santa Cruz graduated from Liberty in 2013 and earned All-North Sequoia League honors in both baseball and football. He was also an All-Madera Tribune selection for two positions in football and for his baseball season.
Santa Cruz played at three levels for the Giants last year, which included a two game stint with the team’s Triple-A affiliate in Sacramento.
“That first outing (with Sacramento), I made it more than what it was,” he said. “It’s about guys trying to play baseball. I just overdid it that first time. I realized they are the same as Single-A guys, but more experienced. That’s why I had more success in my second outing. I was more calm and it was just another outing. I was able to use my stuff to get these guys out. I just let the moment get too much for me. I had family come and they were super excited. What people don’t realize is I didn’t get to the field until the fifth inning. I took a train there and it took a few hours. I had to warm up in the bullpen and didn’t get a full warm-up. Pitchers are creatures of habit. We like to do everything the same. It was a bunch of stuff that accumulated. That didn’t help me calm things down like I wanted to. The second time, I got a full day in and it was nice.”
This year would have been Santa Cruz’s third year with the Giants. He played for four teams in 2018 and three teams in 2019. He ended up with a 6-2 overall record last year with a 3.07 ERA in 40 appearances. He struck out 86 batters in 70 1/3 innings. He had 10 appearances with the San Jose Giants, the big club’s Single-A advanced affiliate and had a 3.32 ERA.
He was promoted to the Triple-A affiliate and had two appearances. After allowing two runs in 1 1/3 innings in his debut on May 7, he settled down and struck out the only two batters he faced two days later.
Getting the call up to Sacramento was a shock to Santa Cruz. He hadn’t pitched higher than at Single-A in his career.
“I was in extended spring training in one day last year,” he said. “When they told me, I was like, ‘what.’ I had never been higher than low Single-A and they want me there. I was just mentally prepare myself for it. I got sent down to San Jose and helped them out. I was there for about a month. Then, they sent me back to Triple-A. It was very nice. I is better than Single-A ball. The guys there are older and know what to do. These guys have been around the block and are very professional. It was helpful to see that side of baseball. It was a good experience. I was glad I had it. I think I got the nerves out of the way so whenever that stint comes around, I’m ready for it mentally and physically and keep on rolling.”
He was then sent to the Giants’ Single-A full season affiliate in Augusta. It was there where he had the most success. He went 6-1 in 28 appearances and struck out 69 batters in 49 1/3 innings and issued only 14 walks.
Although the coronavirus shut down baseball’s minor leagues, Santa Cruz is still working hard to get better.
“I’m very into fitness and eating right,” he said. “I work out two hours a day. I stretch so much to be flexible.”
Santa Cruz has the build teams look for. The 25-year-old is 6-feet, 7-inches tall and weighs between 220 and 230 pounds.
He worked hard in spring training before the pandemic shut it down and was optimistic about how the season was going to play out.
“I was feeling great coming into this year,” he said. “ I still feel great. I haven’t stopped since. I’ve been working out and throwing. Before, I felt good and I thought I was in a good spot throwing and also mentally. I was ready to go. I was mentally preparing myself for San Jose and kill it there. Obviously, they make the decisions, but I was hoping to prove to them that not only could I go to San Jose, but go to Double-A and Triple-A, like I did last year. I want to show the confidence I showed at the end of the season.
“We were so early in the process at spring training, I could have been in Double-A to start the season. You never know who would have gotten injured or I could have had a great spring. They had trust in me to keep me in San Jose for a lot of last year and send me to Sacramento for a little bit. I was very nervous in my first outing with three walks. In my second outing, it was more smooth. Once that second outing came along, I got that confidence and that sparked the second half of the season when they sent me to Augusta. I had a really good year there. They hadn’t said anything about where we were going. San Jose was my realistic option, starting off. Double-A was my goal to at least get to at the end of the season. I was in the Double-A group, but you never know.”
Santa Cruz looks back at his baseball career and is thankful for what he is able to do.
“It kind of goes both ways,” he said. “You look back and think about all the time has passed and see where I’ve gotten with the hard work. I’m appreciative of everyone that has helped me in my life. On top of that, you know there’s a lot of work to be done still. I still have a lot of things to work on.”
After Santa Cruz graduated from Liberty, he played at Bakersfield College for a year and then went to Fresno City College for a year. He played at Fresno State for two years and it helped him get drafted.
“I had an interesting time at Fresno State,” he said. “There were a lot of ups and downs and some interesting times. I didn’t get the opportunity to play too much, for various reasons. Luckily enough, it got me a tryout with the Giants. Since I have signed with them, everything has been working out. I have been getting better each time I went to the mound. I’ve been getting stronger. The process has been a lot smoother than I thought it would have been. I’ve been having more success. I’m getting taught a lot of the things I never thought of or should have been taught in my younger days. It’s been going well. It’s been a long road.”
Although he wants to reach the Majors himself, Santa Cruz is proud of his former teammate Brogdon, who played for about two weeks in “The Show” earlier this season.
“Connor has had a smoother ride, for sure,” he said. “Mine has been up and down, trying to figure out how to do things, what’s going on and what works for me. Finally, it’s starting to roll through. Too bad the season didn’t play out because I thought this would be the season to prove to the organization I could make the leaps they want me to make.”
However, by seeing Brogdon in the majors pushes Santa Cruz to work even harder to try to one-up his friend and former teammate.
“Growing up with him and pitching, I was always in his shadow,” Santa Cruz said. “I have to make sure I get up there so he doesn’t keep one-upping me. I’m super happy for him, but it’s motivating for me because I don’t want to be left behind. I want to be better than him and that’s the competitor in me. I will always be happy and proud that he’s there.
“It’s super awesome for Connor. He’s one of my longest friends I have in the Ranchos. It’s super cool growing up together playing on all the All-Star teams. Knowing he was the hardest thrower, he was always our best pitcher and thinking this kid has got it. Last year, I thought that was the year he was going to make it with how well he was doing. This year, we didn’t know when it was going to happen, but we knew it was going to happen. I got the text message he got called up, I filled up with pride. Not only has he been my teammate, but he’s been a life-long friend. You think you have played a little part of working out. He did it all and super happy for him. I want nothing but the best for him. I want him to have a 20-year career and killing it. It’s super awesome. I’m super happy for him and his family.”