"It was still an unbelievable experience, competing with these guys," Cruz said. "I thank God. He gave me the chance to be here. I'm happy, and I really enjoyed it. The fans enjoyed it, and it's all for the fans."
Josh Hamilton made it to the finals in 2008 at Yankee Stadium before losing to Justin Morneau. This year injuries forced Hamilton into the role of part-time coach and full-time cheerleader for Cruz, watching him from the American League side of the field.
"I was so nervous for Nellie," Hamilton said. "It's totally different watching it, especially when it's a teammate. Obviously I've been through it, but you really don't know what other people are going through. I was just telling him to slow down and take his time, not be in a rush."
Whatever advice Hamilton gave Cruz seemed to help, at least for a couple of rounds.
"He was telling me to relax, fix my gloves, all sort of things," Cruz said. "He was great. I don't think I could have gotten through that without his help."
Cruz's raw power certainly helped as well. He was the first hitter of the night, and he smashed 11 home runs in the first round. There were several blasts, including one into the fourth level of the upper deck in left field and one to the last row of the bleachers in left-center. That one was measured at 471 feet, his longest of the night.
"The first round is the hardest," Cruz said. "If you can get through the first one, the pressure is off. You can relax."
The problem was Cruz had to wait for over two hours before getting back into the batter's box. Fielder also had 11 home runs in the first round and Ryan Howard had seven. But Albert Pujols, Carlos Pena and Joe Mauer had to have a "swing off" to see who would be the fourth slugger to advance to the second round.
That forced Cruz to wait and wait and wait.
"It was crazy," Cruz said. "I was wondering, 'What's taking so long?'"
When he finally got back into the box, he needed five home runs to pass Howard and make it to the finals. He started off slow, with just one home run in his first five swings. But then he blasted two into the third deck in left field, got going again and easily finished with five. So did Fielder.
Cruz went first in the championship round and seemed to get off to a quick start. He hit three home runs in his first six swings, then popped up a couple of pitches. That was a bad sign.
"The last round, I got tired," Cruz said. "I was getting under the ball. That was from fatigue."
Cruz ended up hitting five in the finals, and Fielder was able to surpass that. The two were teammates for a half-season in 2005 at Triple-A Nashville and remain good friends.
"We know each other really good," Fielder said. "We played against each other in A ball when he was on the A's and he came over here in 2005 I think, and then we played in the Minor Leagues and Triple-A and we went to the big leagues together. So I know him really well. It was a lot of fun. It was kind of weird. You never figured you would have a Home Run Derby against your former teammate, especially me and him, but it was pretty cool."
Cruz's pitcher was Evaristo Lantigua, a coach in the Dominican Summer League for the Padres. He is also good friends with Cruz and was flown in just for the occasion.