Mariners closer Edwin Diaz puts family and community first

Feb 22, 2018, 4:34 PM | Updated: Feb 23, 2018, 1:12 pm
The Mariners believe they have built a strong bullpen around closer Edwin Diaz. (AP)...
The Mariners believe they have built a strong bullpen around closer Edwin Diaz. (AP)

PEORIA, Ariz. – There are some players you hear before you see. If you have spent any time in the Mariners clubhouse, chances are Felix Hernandez would be first to come to mind in this category. Last year in spring training, however, there was a new and somewhat surprising voice that rose above others both in the clubhouse and on the field.

That was the voice of closer Edwin Diaz.

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Diaz, then just 22-years-old with all of 49 big league games under his belt, was loud and seemingly everywhere. He was in the middle of everything in the opening days of spring training before he headed off to join team Puerto Rico for the World Baseball Classic.

Diaz reported to spring training with plenty of confidence – which is a good thing for a closer, no matter how young – but there was was a bit of a feeling that, perhaps, some of that confidence was for show. I’m not convinced it was 100 percent organic; rather, he was acting the way he thought he should.

This year, with a full year of closing under his belt, there has been a different calmness about him. And with that, a sense of determination.

Mariners manager Scott Servais has noted a couple of times that Diaz reported to camp in tremendous shape and that his bullpens have been impressive. He looks like he could be thrown into a save situation tomorrow, if necessary.

“I worked very hard,” Diaz said. “I wanted to come to camp 100 percent ready when I got here and I feel great.”

It appears that mission has been accomplished. Diaz has the look of a player who put his work in, very good work, in the offseason. For him, however, there were challenges that his teammates did not have to face.

While most Mariners pitchers worked out at state-of-the-art facilities, Diaz returned home to Puerto Rico less than three weeks after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island. Unsure of what he would encounter there, teammates and team officials told him last September it would be best to wait before returning home. But for Diaz, there was no question it was where he needed to be.

“When they talked to me, I said I want to go home no matter what,” he said. “I have got all of my family there. I want to see how they are. I told them if things got bad in Puerto Rico, I would go to the Dominican with (Robinson) Cano. He invited me there to work out with him.”

It took Diaz two days to get in contact with his family after the storm hit. From the stories they told, he had an idea of what he would see when he arrived home in Daguao. Still, the experience was eye-opening.

“It was pretty bad,” Diaz said. “A lot of things happened. Traffic was worse because there were no lights. Everyone was trying to find gas. It was pretty tough.”

Diaz was fortunate enough to be without power for just a couple of weeks. His parents, who live 10 minutes away, are still without power five months after the storm. They have moved into Diaz’s house.

It would have been easy for Diaz to take his wife and young son to the Dominican, or perhaps Arizona, where he could have a more normal offseason. But for Diaz, family extends beyond his wife and child. There were many more people in Puerto Rico about whom he was concerned – namely, those in the town he grew in.

“When I didn’t have anything, I was trying to make my dream. And they helped me a lot there. Now, I have to give something to them.”

Diaz has given back each time he has returned to Daguao, holding benefit softball games and youth baseball clinics – including one last year that Cano himself visited in support of his teammate. This offseason, after Hurricane Maria hit, Diaz went door-to-door making water deliveries, in addition to taking part in fundraising celebrity softball games.

“I worked with the military guys,” he said. “They told me what days they would go and I went to help them. They helped a lot in Puerto Rico. Every time they told me they were going, I went to help them.”

Daguao is a small town and most of those who live there know Diaz. Because of that, Diaz understood that he could deliver more than just the much-needed water; he wanted to deliver encouragement as well.

“I wanted to tell them that we brought this for you. That they were appreciated. I tried to be with them,” he said.

None of this surprises his pitching coach, who kept in contact with Diaz throughout the offseason.

“It shows his character,” said Mel Stottlemyre Jr. “He’s doing the right things both on and off the field.”

At times, Diaz seems like a little bit of an under-appreciated success story for the Mariners. To take a very young starter and convert him to closer midseason at the Double-A level, and weeks later call him up to the bigs, is a whirlwind process.

“He’s done it a little different,” Stottlemyre points out. “Mariano Rivera had John Wetteland. Most of the guys at some point, when they come up, they get to learn their trade and watch somebody who has been really good at it do it for awhile before they become that guy. (For) Eddie, it’s happened fast for him and he’s done well. He’s really growing. And he is still a young man.”

Diaz knows there is more to be learned.

“Last year was a full season for me, a lot of stuff happened, up and down,” he said. “I learned a lot. I had to fight every night. I had to learn about the hitters (and) how to use my pitches. I have to keep learning. I’ve got a couple of tips now I can do on the mound and try to think like an old guy.”

The “old guys” have been quick to jump in and help out with the young closer, and Diaz isn’t shy about seeking them out for advice. In Peoria, he has practically been new Mariner Juan Nicasio’s shadow.

“He knows a lot,” Diaz said of Nicasio. “He knows the hitters and he’s got a good slider. He has the same grip and movement like me. He’s helping me keep it down, keep it sharp.”

Hernandez has talked to Diaz about pitching as well.

“He tells me I have to stay calm on the mound,” Diaz said of the Mariners’ vet. “Focus on every pitch. Try to make every pitch like your last pitch.”

The swagger of last spring is gone, but the confidence appears real. It has been a process, and he is still learning. But it is apparent that Diaz, the youngest player on the Mariners projected 25-man roster, has earned the respect of his teammates.

“Eddie has really grown up,” said Stottlemyre. “(He’s embracing) the process of playing the role of being a closer and trying to be a good leader as well. Everyone looks up to him and we count on him at the end of the game.”

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