Diaz honors Jose's legacy in grand fashion

Cards shortstop hits emotional slam after spending time with Fernandez's family

September 28th, 2016

ST. LOUIS -- After spending much of Monday in Miami, where he mourned the loss of alongside family and close friends, returned to St. Louis ready to pay tribute to the childhood friend who died early Sunday in a boating accident.

He hung a No. 16 jersey in the Cardinals' dugout as a tangible sign of support for a grieving family and community. And then, carrying with him the weight of personal loss and professional expectation, Diaz produced not only one of the most poignant moments of the Cardinals' season, but also one of its biggest hits. His fourth-inning grand slam, the first of Diaz's career, helped lift the Cardinals to a 12-5 victory over the Reds and, Diaz hoped, also the spirits of so many still hurting.

"I did that for his family," said a tearful Diaz. "I've been through a lot of things the last couple days. This helped a little bit."

Diaz, who grew up a few houses away from Fernandez in the Cuban neighborhood of Santa Clara, had not played since learning from his mother Sunday morning that his childhood friend had died in a boating accident. He left the Cardinals to console Fernandez's mourning mother and grandmother during a private gathering before he had to try and turn his attention back to a pennant race.

As he readied for Tuesday's game, Diaz promised himself that this -- and every night after -- would be different. He wanted to play as Jose would.  

"I think the best way to honor him is to come here every day and play this game 100 percent," Diaz said. "That's what he would want. I will go out there and play 100 percent every day and give my team a chance to win, like he did.

"He reminded us how fun this game is. He loved this game. He liked to compete. Going forward, I have to love the game even more. Every chance I have to put on the uniform, I have to give everything I have today. That's the legacy he gives us."

:: Jose Fernandez: 1992-2016 ::

After Diaz grounded out in his first at-bat on Tuesday, catcher , also of Cuban descent, found the rookie shortstop in the dugout. He brought with him a prediction.

"I said, 'Dude, you're going to hit a homer today,'" Pena said. "Because I knew how much this game meant for him. He was very excited about playing today and then, you know when he got that jersey and he put that jersey on the bench, he was feeling something special was going to happen."

With the Cardinals desperate to keep pace in the Wild Card race, Diaz stepped up with the bases full and one out in the fourth. He brought a crowd to its feet by depositing 's fourth pitch over the left-center field wall. It put the Cardinals ahead, 5-2, and gave them their first lead since Saturday.

Diaz lifted his arms to the sky as he reached home and stopped to embrace teammates and before returning to the dugout. Once there, the crowd drew him out for a curtain call, which Diaz acknowledged by tipping his cap both to the fans and to the sky.

"Watching him cross the plate and watching his reaction as he went through the guys really hit me in how much that meant to him and some of the load he's carrying right now," manager Mike Matheny said. "You can never understand what each person is going through when they suffer a loss like that."

"I felt some serious goose bumps when he hit that," added Wainwright. "Almost got choked up."

Diaz did. After doffing his cap, he excused himself for a few minutes, dipped into the tunnel and wiped tears from his eyes. After the game, the fan who caught the ball made arrangements to deliver it to the shortstop.

"Hopefully this can help [the Fernandez family] feel better," Diaz said. "Every time you're here, you have to focus 100 percent on the game. It's tough. He was like a brother to me. But I think I have to look at the way he played baseball and how he enjoyed every day he came to the park to compete. I think I look at life differently now."

Diaz's emotional home run came one night after hit the unlikeliest of homers to usher in the Marlins' return to the field. Diaz had heard about that moment, but acknowledged being too choked up by the circumstances to watch the highlights.

After fostering love for the sport together on Eighth Street, Diaz followed in Fernandez's footsteps by ascending to the Majors this season. Though their big league careers overlapped for fewer than six months, Diaz and Fernandez were able to share some unique moments together.

They were teammates on the National League All-Star team in San Diego, and they faced each other for the first time as big leaguers in July. Diaz homered off his childhood buddy that day. Afterward, Fernandez told Diaz he'd get payback by striking him out twice when they faced each other again.

There never was a next time.

"It's a shame to lose a guy like him who means so much to baseball, to his family," Diaz said. "I only play for his family right now."