Dayton Dragons: De La Cruz homers 3 times in doubleheader split

Dragons infielder Elly De La Cruz gives a thankful look up after a strikeout to end the sixth inning in the second game of Thursday's doubleheader split with West Michigan. De La Cruz hit three home runs in the two games. CONTRIBUTED/Jeff Gilbert

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Dragons infielder Elly De La Cruz gives a thankful look up after a strikeout to end the sixth inning in the second game of Thursday's doubleheader split with West Michigan. De La Cruz hit three home runs in the two games. CONTRIBUTED/Jeff Gilbert

Elly De La Cruz was a 16-year-old in the Dominican Republic and got offers from only the Cincinnati Reds and the Texas Rangers to sign his first professional baseball contract. The Reds offered more so he signed with them.

That was 2018. Now De La Cruz is a 20-year-old phenom playing for the Dayton Dragons and everybody wants him.

He’s playing in the Futures Game during All-Star weekend at Dodger Stadium. After Thursday’s doubleheader in which he hit three home runs, a reporter from the MLB Pipeline website called for an interview.

De La Cruz showed Thursday why he was chosen for the Futures Game, why he is the Reds’ No. 2 prospect and why he is the No. 50 prospect overall on the MLB Pipeline list. He homered from both sides of the plate in the opener — a 7-3 loss to West Michigan — and hit his second straight right-handed homer in the second game, a 5-0 victory that snapped the Dragons’ five-game losing streak.

“I’m very proud of myself for the work I’ve been doing,” De La Cruz said through interpreter and teammate Jose Torres when asked about being selected for the Futures Game.

“And happy, happy, mucho happy,” he added in English.

De La Cruz bolted up the prospect lists last season after he grew to be a 6-foot-5 shortstop with power and speed and a productive season at Low-A Daytona. This year he’s batting .298 with 18 homers and 50 RBIs.

“I always knew that I was good, but last year in extended spring training I saw the progression and noticed that I was moving in the right direction,” De La Cruz said. “That was a turning point.”

De La Cruz is a natural right-hander and hit better right-handed when he was young. But he’s been switch-hitting as long as he can remember and the left side became his strong side. He had only hit one right-handed homer this season and entered the night batting .240 from the right and .316 from the left. He said he is working hard on his right-handed swing.

“Today you saw the improvement, and I felt very, very good hitting right-handed today,” he said.

De La Cruz became the first Dragon to homer from both sides of the plate in the same game since Henry Rodriguez on April 12, 2010.

“It’s the best feeling ever to hit a home run from both sides,” he said. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s a good emotion to know you can go out of the yard both from both sides of the plate.”

From the beginning of the season, Dragons manager Bryan LaHair has talked about how much talent De La Cruz has and how much fun he is to watch play.

“Sky’s the limit for him, and I’m just glad to be part of his development,” LaHair said. “He loves the game and he has intangibles that 95% of us just don’t have. He’s just a special talent and he’s going to continue to get better each day.”

Sooner or later and possibly sooner than later, the Reds will promote De La Cruz to Class AA Chattanooga whether it’s to play shortstop, third base or both.

“It’s a dream to go to the next step and I’ve thought about it, but my mentality is to enjoy the game today and my mentality is to make it to the big leagues,” he said. “It’s not just to advance.”

Thursday’s second game was a lift the Dragons needed after walking nine and committing two errors in the first game. Since losing an 8.5-game lead over the final 15 games of the Midwest League’s first half and finishing second to Great Lakes, the Dragons continued to struggle and are now 5-7 in the second half.

Quin Cotton led off the game with a home run, De La Cruz and Ashton Creal added solo homers and starter Christian Roa and Vin Timpanelli combined on a one-hitter and struck out 12 in the seven-inning game.

“We were on a little slide so getting a victory is very positive, and more importantly we’ve got to build off it,” LaHair said. “We set the tone early and Roa pitched a great game and established his fastball and everything else kind of played off that.”

McGarry update: Former Dragons first baseman Alex McGarry took his hot bat with him to Class AA Chattanooga. In 22 games, McGarry is batting .318 with a 1.014 OPS. He’s hit nine homers with 19 RBIs.

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