Díaz allows tying HR before Mets lose in 10

July 26th, 2020

NEW YORK -- If the pitch caught the strike zone, it was only by a whisper. In truth, said afterward, the fastball was everything he wanted it to be -- 98 mph, just off the outer edge of home plate in a spot where Marcell Ozuna would not be able to pull it. A pitcher’s pitch.

And yet Díaz had not even completed his follow-through when Ozuna connected, hitting the ball squarely while Díaz whirled on one foot to watch. As the ball landed just over the right-center-field fence, rolling into the Mets’ bullpen to tie a Saturday matinee that the Braves would go on to win, 5-3 in 10 innings, Díaz’s lips curled into the shadow of a smile.

“I can’t do anything but laugh when I do everything I want to do and that’s still the result that happens,” Díaz said through an interpreter.

Without context, Ozuna’s home run would have been an unfortunate blot on a still-young season. Díaz would have spoken about having a short memory, about moving onto the next day, about leaving this one in the past.

But for Díaz, this was not simply one blown save; it came against the backdrop of last year, when he blew seven saves in 33 chances, lost seven games, posted a 5.59 ERA and allowed 15 home runs -- as many as in his previous two seasons combined. As if the pressure of coming to New York with Robinson Canó in a seven-player trade were not enough, Díaz exacerbated it with his 2019 performance.

Mets officials spent all winter and spring declining to commit publicly to Díaz as their closer, but when his team took a one-run lead into the ninth inning on Opening Day, new manager Luis Rojas gave him the ball. He converted. A day later, the Mets again took a one-run lead into the ninth, and again gave the baseball to Díaz.

He did not convert. After Ozzie Albies struck out and Freddie Freeman flied out, Ozuna swung through a 3-1 slider to run the count full. The Braves “knew that my slider was biting,” as Díaz put it, so rather than risk missing the strike zone with one, he tried to freeze Ozuna with a fastball on the outside corner. Even though the pitch buzzed in exactly where he wanted it, Ozuna managed to strike it squarely off his bat at 104.7 mph.

“Yesterday, he struck me out on a fastball away,” Ozuna said. “I couldn’t reach it. It was too far. So today I was talking to my teammates. I said if I get in a situation like that with two strikes and he tries to go away, I’m going to try to hit it straight at him or to the opposite field.”

It did not help that the Mets failed to bail out their closer, stranding two men on base in the bottom of the inning to force extras -- and their first look at the newest portion of Major League Baseball’s rulebook. As part of MLB’s return-to-play procedures, all extra innings in 2020 begin with a runner on second base.

The first such runner, Adam Duvall, scored when Dansby Swanson singled to spark a three-run rally off Hunter Strickland. The Mets stranded the tying runs on base in the 10th to seal Díaz’s fate and for the second straight day, a Mets starter -- this time, Steven Matz -- received a no-decision.

“I’m not concerned,” Rojas said. “It’s one outing. We like how Díaz has been throwing the ball, what he’s shown repeatedly.”

Should Díaz continue to allow runs, the Mets do have other options at closer, some currently more appealing than others. One of the darlings of Summer Camp was Jeurys Familia, who lost 30 pounds this winter and looked dominating Saturday in his first regular-season inning. Another reliever with closing experience, Dellin Betances, has yet to regain his old upper-90s velocity, but is nonetheless a late-inning option going forward. If the situation calls for a lefty, Justin Wilson has closing chops as well.

But the Mets know they are a better team with Díaz in peak form, so they will most likely continue to give him chances even in a short season, where every blown save counts that much more. Earlier Saturday, reliever Seth Lugo commented that Díaz looked as confident as ever, and Lugo should know. He pitched with Díaz for Team Puerto Rico during the 2009 World Baseball Classic, watching firsthand as Díaz played a starring role.

“He looks like mentally the same guy, you know?” Lugo said. He’s ready to get out there and shove.”

“Today is not a day that I'm going to lose my confidence over,” Díaz agreed. “At the end of the day, I located my pitch exactly where I wanted to put it.”