There were times this season when Jacob Cruz figured he just couldn't win for losing.
He assumed he would be the starting center fielder for top-ranked Arizona State, expecting to uphold a standard of excellence while covering defensive territory once inhabited by Barry Bonds.
But Cruz, a sophomore from Channel Islands High who started in right field as a freshman, found himself in a mysterious battle for the starting job in center at the outset of the 1993 season.
The perceived slight taxed his patience.
In February, while Cruz played with an aggression fueled by anger, he suffered four cracked ribs in a home-plate collision.
Cruz admits he was trying to make something happen when he came racing around third base in the ninth inning of a 7-5 loss at Cal on March 6. With the Sun Devils trailing by three runs, Cruz led off with a double and tried to score on Bill Dunn's single.
He tried a headfirst slide--darting left of the plate, extending his right arm to touch it--and slammed his 6-foot-1, 175-pound frame into catcher Reed Aljian's unmoving shin guard.
"I was just being aggressive," Cruz said. "I guess there's a fine line between being aggressive and stupid. I can still see it in my mind in slow motion. Me going in. I can see his knee and can feel my ribs bending and all the air coming out of me. . . .
"I knew instantly something was wrong. The pain was incredible."
Out of luck and out of the lineup for four to six weeks, Cruz figured his season was a wash. But the ribs healed quickly and, surprisingly, so did his season.
Not only did Cruz return after three weeks, he won the center field position and has hit more home runs this season (10) than in any other. He averages one home run for every 17.4 at-bats and carries a .621 slugging percentage.
He has moved from ninth to second in the batting order with his .351 batting average. He has an on-base percentage of .424 and 34 runs batted in. Twenty-five of his 61 hits have gone for extra bases.
His play will be crucial to the Sun Devils (42-18), five-time national champions who are hoping to advance out of the NCAA regional tournament they will host in Tempe, Ariz., this weekend.
Cal State Northridge also plays in that regional.
The left-handed Cruz said his doctor cleared him to play only defense three weeks after he sustained the cracked ribs on his right side. But coaches wanted to see how he could handle the bat and put him in the batting cage before a game.
The next thing Cruz knew, he was back in center field and doctor's orders were forgotten.
Cruz knew a few sore ribs wouldn't stop him from chasing down threatening fly balls. Granted, the pain would cause some discomfort at the plate--maybe constrict his swing a little.
That suited Coach Jim Brock, who told Cruz to shorten his stroke at the outset of the season. When Cruz didn't comply, Brock platooned him with another left-handed hitter.
"When Brock told me I was second string, he kind of set a challenge for me," Cruz said. "I thought I was a better player than what he gave me credit for.
"Now . . . it's been a better year than I expected."
Honor stuns Heggen: Arizona outfielder Jamie Heggen (Thousand Oaks) said she was shocked when she learned she had been named an All-American. She wasn't expecting it and, apparently, no one else was either. Two days after the All-American team was released, Heggen still hadn't heard the news.
"Oh, wow," said Heggen, who batted .390 with five home runs and 31 RBIs for the No. 3 Wildcats (40-7). Arizona will play Cal State Long Beach today in the first round of the College World Series in Oklahoma City.
"I'm surprised," she said. "I was second team last year and I didn't think I had that good of a year this year--not as good as last year. This comes as a shock."
Fresno State shortstop Kim Maher (Buena) should be shocked by being left off the first, second and third teams despite a strong year. She finished with a .380 average, 14 home runs and 49 RBIs.
Maybe she's not shocked. She predicted her fate three weeks ago when she said: "I think it's really political and I don't have a chance." . . . .
Arizona teammate Jenny Dalton (Glendale) is expected to start at second base against Long Beach despite a broken thumb and stitches in her left hand and despite the fact she sprained her ankle in practice Wednesday.
Checking the fax: Pitcher Roland De La Maza (St. Genevieve) of Cal State Sacramento was named first-team All-Western Athletic Conference Western Division after he closed out his senior year with an 11-2 record, 3.17 earned-run average and 113 strikeouts in 113 2/3 innings. . . . Freshman Rico Lagattuta (Westlake) led Nevada with a 1.78 earned-run average as a freshman. Fellow freshman Shane Slayton (Royal) batted .297 with six home runs. . . .
Statistically, left-hander Tom Ball (Sylmar) had a disappointing senior season at Cal State Dominguez Hills, finishing with a 4-2 record and a 4.88 ERA after an 8-5 mark and 2.85 ERA in 1992. But he bounced back from a monthlong slump in which he failed to get past the second inning of any start.
Ball closed the season with three straight victories: a one-hitter against Southern California College, a 10-strikeout performance against Cal Poly Pomona and a shutout against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the first blanking of the Mustangs in 120 games.