"He's growing up," Washington said of the 26-year-old outfielder. "Pretty soon, I'm going to have to take the leash off and let him go. And I will."
Cruz, acquired last July in the six-player trade that also brought slugger Carlos Lee from Milwaukee, was envisioned as the Rangers' starting right fielder this season -- if he could handle the job.
Doubts began to bloom after Cruz started out 2-for-16 (.125) in Spring Training exhibitions. But Cruz closed the Cactus League with a flourish, going 12-for-31 (.387) with three home runs and six RBIs in his final 10 games to reassert himself.
Cruz started the regular season 3-for-14 (.214) with six strikeouts, and Washington held him out of Sunday's starting lineup to avoid pitting the youngster against Boston veteran ace Curt Schilling. But Cruz also entered Monday leading the Rangers with four RBIs despite starting only three of the first six games. Washington said Cruz looks better than his early numbers indicate.
"He's starting to get a lot more comfortable," Washington said. "He feels like he belongs."
Brad Wilkerson was the odd man out of Monday's starting lineup against Tampa Bay, as Frank Catalanotto made just his second start in left field and Sammy Sosa opened as the designated hitter for the third time this season. Sosa's other three starts came in place of Cruz in right field. Washington said Cruz won't become part of that musical chairs shuffle, saying Cruz will either be starting in right or sitting on the bench as an available pinch-hitter.
"Cruz is too young to be DH-ing," Washington said, declining to say what he considers the minimum age for that role.
Another Aki in the house: One day after Boston pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka and his enormous traveling media contingent left town, Rangers pitcher Akinori Otsuka got to see another highly touted fellow countryman visit Arlington.
Devil Rays third baseman Akinori Iwamura arrived with the distinction of having the best start ever by a Japanese position player through his first five games in the Major Leagues. Iwamura was 9-for-17 (.529) with one home run entering Monday's series opener in Texas. Seattle outfielder Ichiro Suzuki was 10-for-24 (.417) with one home run after his first five games in 2001.
Stewart gets first start: Backup catcher Chris Stewart, the only Rangers player who had not appeared in the first six games, got his first start of the season Monday. Stewart appeared in six games last September for the Chicago White Sox, and was the batterymate of former Chicago teammate Brandon McCarthy in what could become a regular tandem.
"McCarthy and Stewart know each other, so this was my chance to get him into a game," Washington said of the catcher. "If this is the case [of a personal catcher for McCarthy], and I'm not saying it is, it would give me a chance to give Gerald [Laird] a break."
Too early to worry? Some scouts were leery of how right-hander Vicente Padilla would respond after last year's 15-win season earned him a new three-year, $33.75 million contract from the Rangers. Padilla is 0-2 with a 6.94 ERA after two starts and is averaging 3.86 strikeouts and 13.89 baserunners per nine innings. His career numbers include a 4.10 ERA and nine-inning averages of 6.24 strikeouts and 12.75 baserunners.
Sunday's Minor stars: The top three performances from the Rangers' four Minor League affiliates in action on Sunday:
Gold: Hank Blalock's brother, Jake, the left fielder and cleanup hitter for Class A Bakersfield, went 2-for-4 with a double and three RBIs in a 12-7 loss at Lancaster. He is hitting .444 through four games for the Blaze.
Silver: Double-A Frisco right-hander Luis Mendoza went 5 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing two hits and striking out four, to beat Springfield, 4-1, in his first start of the season.
Bronze: Right-hander Wes Littleton pitched two scoreless innings for Triple-A Oklahoma in a 4-1 loss to Memphis. Littleton has retired all nine batters faced in his first three innings.
He said it: "I'm not the type of player that worries about the little details like that." -- Rangers OF-DH Sammy Sosa, when asked whether he was aware his home run Saturday at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington had tied him with Ken Griffey Jr. and Fred McGriff for homering in the most ballparks (43) during his Major League career
Briefly: Texas entered Monday's series opener averaging 3.17 runs per game, tied with Kansas City for 12th in the American League ahead of only Oakland (3.14 rpg). ... After committing five errors in their first 17 innings of the season, the Rangers entered Monday with a streak of 34 consecutive errorless innings. ... The Rangers have scheduled a Tuesday afternoon news conference to announce details of the club's new African-American Community Outreach Program. Part of the effort includes the donation of two pitching machines and other equipment to the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Dallas.
Up next: Journeyman right-hander Jamey Wright (0-0, 0.00) makes his Rangers debut against Devil Rays right-hander Jae Seo (0-0, 7.11) at 7:05 p.m. CT Tuesday at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Wright was 6-10 with a 5.19 ERA for San Francisco in 2006.
Ken Daley is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.