Early closing time for dominant Díaz

June 24th, 2021

NEW YORK -- Three times this season, the Mets have called upon Edwin Díaz in the eighth inning with a lead, surprising many at Citi Field with the first strains of trumpet music as he jogs in from the bullpen. Three times this season, Díaz has locked down the save. Wednesday marked just the latest such occasion, when Díaz recorded five outs in a 7-3 win over the Braves.

Compare that to Díaz’s first two years in Flushing, when the Mets asked him for two multi-inning saves in those seasons combined. As Díaz has returned to end-game dominance for the Mets in 2021, the team has in turn stretched him beyond his normal bounds. And both sides have been better for it.

Díaz’s save -- his 16th in 17 chances -- allowed the Mets to convert their best offensive performance in two weeks into victory. Francisco Lindor hit a two-run homer, Michael Conforto collected two hits and scored twice in his return from the injured list, and Tylor Megill pitched effectively into the fifth inning of his Major League debut.

But it was Díaz who did some of the heaviest lifting, escaping a two-on, one-out jam in the eighth before locking down the final three outs in the ninth.

“Díaz has been great this whole year,” Lindor said. “He comes in and he lights it up.”

The outcome was still reasonably in doubt when Corey Oswalt, whom the Mets had brought to Flushing to cover much-needed innings in the wake of several pitching injuries, ran into trouble in the eighth. With two men on base, one out and several of his other high-leverage relievers unavailable, manager Luis Rojas opted for Díaz, who most recently had locked down a multi-inning save on June 11.

As advertised, Díaz “lit it up,” dousing the rally by fanning Pablo Sandoval on a sequence of a 101-mph fastball followed by a 91-mph slider. The Mets gave Díaz additional cushion with one run in the bottom of the eighth, though he didn’t need it; he retired three of the four batters he faced in the ninth without incident.

“If you run into the right sequence of days where he hasn’t pitched, and you feel that you can do it, you do it,” Rojas said of the multi-inning effort. “Tonight was a night that he could do it for us, and he did an outstanding job.”

It was the type of performance the Mets would have hesitated to ask from Díaz in previous years. Over his first five big-league seasons, Díaz recorded just one five-out save. During the closer’s first summer in New York, manager Mickey Callaway said he didn’t want Díaz to be a multi-inning pitcher unless the Mets needed it in October. (Díaz, for his part, said he was willing and able.)

Last summer, with a 60-game season crammed into two-plus months, the Mets had few opportunities to stretch Díaz beyond his traditional role. But this year has been different, with four multi-inning outings on his ledger already. Díaz has not allowed an earned run in those appearances.

“I just try to do my job,” Díaz said. “I’m here to help the team to win. … Our bullpen was short, and a lot of guys were down today, so I was expecting to come in maybe in the eighth.”

When he did, the crowd roared its approval -- which was significant. In the court of public opinion, Díaz is still trying to rehabilitate his reputation following an erratic first year in Flushing, in which he blew seven saves, lost seven games and posted a 5.59 ERA -- by far the highest he has produced in any season before or since. When Díaz rebounded to allow just one run over his final 12 save appearances last season, many chalked it up to a product of the pandemic-shortened campaign -- no fans in the stands, less pressure, better success.

This year, Díaz has proven more definitively that 2019, not ’20, was the aberration. He owns a 2.73 ERA and his best walk rate since 2018. His 43-inning homerless streak is the longest in the Majors, thanks in large part to better command of his slider.

“[2019] took a lot out of him mentally, and I think he would admit that,” Mets pitching coach Jeremy Hefner said. “He went from being likely the best closer in baseball in a lot of respects to having a really tough year. New organization. New everything. And so I think a lot of his consistency has just come from knowing what to expect.”

The Mets may always regret the seven-player trade that brought Díaz here, partially because of Robinson Canó’s troubles and primarily because prospect Jarred Kelenic appears poised for stardom in Seattle. But Kelenic’s unsuccessful big-league debut earlier this season, combined with Díaz’s resurgence, have at least begun to even the score.

 In that manner, Díaz is doing what he can to change the narrative, three (or four or five) outs at a time.