With Bregman out & Toro gone, Díaz rising

August 11th, 2021

HOUSTON -- Where would the Astros be without ? Wait, don’t answer that. Astros manager Dusty Baker had to live that life for nearly two months earlier this year while Díaz was out of action with a fractured left hand, leaving Baker without his ace utility player.

Houston actually played pretty well while Díaz was out from June 6-July 26, but with starting third baseman Alex Bregman still out on a rehab assignment because of his strained left quad and infielder Abraham Toro having been traded to the Mariners last month, Díaz’s contributions are vital.

Díaz went 3-for-3 with three RBIs and a walk and starting pitcher Framber Valdez shook off a wobbly first inning to allow one run in six innings Wednesday afternoon to lead the Astros to a two-game sweep of the Rockies with a 5-1 win at Minute Maid Park.

“You really see since he’s been back how much we miss him,” Baker said. “When he first went out, six weeks seemed like an eternity to be without him, without one of the best utility men in baseball. We certainly missed his bat, you miss his defense and you miss the steadiness you can count on every day. You just have to keep an eye on him to make sure that he stays healthy.”

Díaz, starting at third base, had an RBI single in the first and third innings Wednesday and added an RBI double in the seventh. He also walked in the fifth. He’s hitting .339 (19-for-56) with 14 RBIs in 13 games since being activated.

“I do my work in the cage and I’ve been consistent,” Díaz said when asked why he’s been able to be so productive in his return. “Watching these guys go about their business every day helps you to have a good approach in the field, you know? They’re getting good swings at the plate, seeing the ball and hitting it in the middle.”

Díaz fractured a bone in his left hand when he was struck by a pitch while playing against the Blue Jays on June 5 in Buffalo, N.Y. Bregman was injured running the bases 11 days later, leaving the Astros to turn to Toro to get most of the starts at third base in their absence.

The Astros traded Toro to Seattle on July 27 -- the day Díaz was activated from the injured list -- and Díaz has started 10 of 13 games at third base since (he’s also started two games at first base and one at second base). Before he was injured, Díaz made starts at first base, second base, shortstop, left field and right field this year. His best value to the club remains his versatility, but being able to fill in so well for Bregman has been a boon.

“It’s been huge having him back,” Baker said. “I was talking to [hitting coach Alex] Cintrón today and [Díaz] drove in the first two [runs] and I said, ‘Hey man, he might as well drive them all in today.’ He had a big day today.”

Díaz leads the Astros in hits (19), RBIs (14), total bases (33) and OPS (.951) since he came off the IL. Michael Brantley is hitting .341 in that span, followed by Díaz, Jose Altuve (.309), Chas McCormick (.293), Yordan Alvarez (.292), Carlos Correa (.277) and Kyle Tucker (.273).

Whether it’s while playing third base or playing all over the field, Díaz said he’s always ready to hit.

“I think this year I feel pretty comfortable playing every position, you know?” he said. “For me, I think it’s tough to have Breggy out, so for me it makes no difference -- playing one position every day or playing different positions. They’re two different things. I’m able to separate defense from offense. For me, I’m glad to get at-bats right now, be in the lineup and help the team win.”

Díaz, 31, spent as much time on the injured list as he did on the field in his first two years with the Astros, missing 86 games (56 in 2019 and 30 last year) with injuries while appearing in 86 regular-season games. He said he lost some weight last offseason with hopes of avoiding the soft-tissue injuries that had been landing him on the IL.

The hand injury was a fluke setback for Díaz, who’s proving his worth for the American League West division leaders.

“He’s been playing great,” said Brantley, who had three hits Wednesday. “He’s a big part of what we do around here. He missed some time earlier in the year but he worked his tail off to get back. He put the work in, and it’s paying off right now for us, and we appreciate having him in the lineup every day.”