TUCSON - Come Friday, Juan Cruz will mark the third anniversary of the day he owned baseball, at least for two innings in New York City.
And maybe the reason scouts always smile when they speak his name.
In the Chicago Cubs’ regular season opener on March 31, 2003, Cruz faced seven New York Mets and struck out six. Straight.
After Mike Piazza opened the Mets’ sixth inning with an infield single, Mo Vaughn took a called third strike, Ty Wigginton struck out swinging and Jeromy Burnitz looked at strike three.
In the seventh, Rey Sanchez, Timo Perez and Roger Cedeno also went down on strikes.
So of Cruz’s 20 strikes, one was put in play, and it did not leave the infield.
Diamondbacks catcher Johnny Estrada is not surprised.
“He’ll do that. He’ll go through spurts when he is untouchable,’’ said Estrada, who caught Cruz in Atlanta in 2004.
The speed gun in Atlanta caught Cruz’s fastball at 98 mph at times, Estrada said.
“He has a power arm with electric stuff,’’ Estrada said.
“He has the kind of arm that can run through a lineup with ease at times. The only time he gets hurt is when he leaves a ball over the plate. When he’s at his best, he’s throwing all his pitches and keeping the ball down.’’
The D -Backs acquired right-hander Cruz for lefthander Brad Halsey on Sunday to initially fill a role as a long reliever, although he has had success starting and could be a candidate there later in the season.
He is scheduled to pitch three innings Wednesday but already made a positive impression on pitching coach Bryan Price during a 35-pitch side session on Monday, his first day in camp, showing his repertoire of fastball, cut fastball, curve and change-up.
“The physical gifts are obvious,’’ Price said. “His side today was very, very impressive. He had a real idea and had a good bullpen routine.
“The obvious thing is that he has a great arm. Pitching is locating that quality stuff. If he can do that, he can probably name the role he wants to pitch in because he just has a lot of physical gifts.
“What we are trying to do is get him in a situation where he is comfortable and can thrive.’’
Cruz’s career so far has been marked by an inability to sustain that six-strikeouts-ina-row stuff.
Cruz, 27, broke into the major leagues with the Chicago Cubs in 2001, when he and Carlos Zambrano were talked about as the franchise’s next young power arms behind Kerry Wood and Mark Prior.
Cruz was 3-1 with a 3.22 ERA in eight starts for the Cubs that year and a deceptive 3-11 with a 3.98 ERA for the Cubs the next season, when he made 36 of his 45 appearances out of the bullpen.
His best season was with Estrada in 2004, when he was 6-2 with a 2.75 ERA in 50 relief appearances, striking out 70 in 72 innings while allowing only 59 hits, but he struggled in Oakland early last season and was sent back to the minors.
“I like this team already,’’ said Cruz, who has not allowed an earned run in 10 1 /3 innings this spring but still was in danger of being optioned to Triple-A Sacramento.
“The opportunity is there on every team. You just have to do your job.’’
As far as a role, “It’s not for me to say. I don’t make the decisions. I’d like to be a starter, but if they say relief, whatever.’’
Miguel Batista has seen Cruz pitch in the Dominican Republic winter league, where Cruz plays for Licey and Batista for Aguilas.
“When he finds his way, he’s going to be great,’’ Batista said.
“When he is throwing the ball over the plate and commanding his stuff, he’s outstanding.’’