In the Cards: Unlikely pinch-hitters make history

Hazelbaker, Diaz and Garcia set MLB record with homers

April 9th, 2016

ATLANTA -- As he watched rookie Aledmys Diaz drill a fastball into the left-field stands for a go-ahead home run on Friday night, Greg Garcia turned to Adam Wainwright inside the Turner Field visiting dugout and wondered out loud if they had just witnessed history. They hadn't -- at least, not yet.

Garcia changed that an inning later when he connected for the team's third pinch-hit homer of the night. He followed Jeremy Hazelbaker's game-tying blast and Diaz's go-ahead shot, giving the Cardinals pinch-hit long balls in three successive innings to help lift the club to a 7-4 win over the Braves.

Teams have hit a pair of pinch-hit home runs 57 times in baseball history, most recently when the Tigers did it in 2011. But until Friday, no club had ever hit three.

"Honestly, when I hit it, that's what I thought running down first," Garcia said of his history-making moment. "It was the weirdest thing. It was really wild. You never know what you're going to see at the baseball park."

As unlikely as the feat was, the cast of players involved was even more so. Hazelbaker and Garcia didn't win bench jobs until the final day of Spring Training. Diaz wasn't on the team's Opening Day roster, summoned only after an injury to Tommy Pham. The three entered the game having hit a combined three homers in the Majors.

"We talked kind of going through the winter about our bench and how there was a little more thump," manager Mike Matheny said. "I don't think those were the three guys we were talking about, though."

Hazelbaker, who nudged his way onto the club with a show of power this spring, became the second Cardinals player to have two home runs in his first four career games. Joe Cunningham was the first in 1954. He pinch-hit for starter Jaime Garcia, an obvious spot to use the power-hitting outfielder in with the club down by one.

Not so orthodox, however, was Matheny's decision to pinch-hit Diaz to open the eighth. The game tied and his cleanup hitter, Matt Adams, due up first, Matheny found himself torn. Send Adams up against lefty reliever Eric O'Flaherty? Or summon Diaz, who hadn't appeared in a game since he committed a costly error in his Major League debut on Tuesday.

Bench coach David Bell pushed Matheny toward Diaz.

"I was going back-and-forth," Matheny said. "[Bell] really felt it there, and he was right."

Diaz, anticipating that O'Flaherty would challenge him with fastballs, connected on the second one he saw for his first Major League homer.

"That was pretty big," Diaz said afterward. "The home run got us in position to win the game, and that's awesome."

The home run not only gave the Cardinals their first lead, but it made Diaz the franchise's first player since Doug Clarey on April 28, 1976, to have his first career homer come as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning or later.

"Without a doubt, to be able to go in and make a big contribution like today helps a kid affirm to himself that he belongs here," Matheny said, "and that he can be not just a guy on the roster, but a contributing player."