Díaz remembers epic save for Puerto Rico in '17 Classic

March 9th, 2023

NORTH PORT, Fla. -- Even if continues to be one of baseball’s most dominant relievers for another decade, one of his most treasured memories will be constructing the heroic relief appearance that sent Puerto Rico to the 2017 World Baseball Classic championship game.

“Representing Puerto Rico is different than playing in the big leagues,” Díaz said. “The big leagues is a dream. But playing for Puerto Rico is really big because we are trying to win for our country and our family and our friends and everybody. It’s so special.”

Díaz and his Puerto Rican teammates made their final preparations for this year’s Classic in a 9-0 exhibition game loss to the Braves at CoolToday Park on Thursday afternoon. The team will now travel to Miami to begin playing in the Classic on Saturday.

Puerto Rico will compete against the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Israel in Pool D round-robin play. The Puerto Ricans have finished second in the past two Classics, 2013 and ‘17.

Yadier Molina and Díaz served as batterymates for the last two frames of Puerto Rico’s 4-3, 11-inning win over the Netherlands in the semifinals of the 2017 Classic. Six years later, Molina is the manager for the Puerto Ricans, who once again have the luxury of having Díaz in their bullpen.

Díaz entered the ‘17 Classic still relatively green, having made just 49 Major League career appearances. He had finished fifth in American League Rookie of the Year balloting after striking out 40.6 percent of the batters he had faced for the Mariners in '16. But the baseball world might have gained a greater appreciation for the current Mets closer’s potential when he worked two scoreless innings against the Netherlands on that night at Dodger Stadium.

“That game was awesome,” Molina said. “The last two innings by Edwin, there [were] some controversies, but that was really good for him.”

With the game tied 3-3 heading to the top of the 10th, Puerto Rico handed the ball to Díaz and watched as he dominated over two hitless and scoreless frames. The right-hander set the tone by striking out the first three batters -- Jurickson Profar, Wladimir Balentien and Jonathan Schoop.

Balentien had hit a two-run homer in the first inning, and he scored after doubling in the fifth.

“I was talking to the guys in the bullpen and I told them, 'When I face [Balentien], I will strike him out,'” Díaz said.

It’s fair to say both competitors came to the plate with some extra adrenaline. After Balentien fouled a first-pitch, 98 mph fastball, he and Díaz exchanged words. The batter then fouled off a 100 mph fastball and was sitting 0-2 when he had to lean away from an up-and-in heater. This led Molina to step in front of the plate to make sure nothing more than more words might be exchanged.

As Molina was calming Balentien, Carlos Correa kept Díaz focused with some words on the mound. The Puerto Rican closer recorded a called strikeout one pitch later and kept his team in position to win courtesy of Eddie Rosario’s 11th-inning sacrifice fly.

“I didn’t throw at him on purpose,” Díaz said. “He got mad at me. We talked a little bit, and I ended up striking him out.”

This energizing moment further highlighted what the Classic means to the players and fans. At the same time, it helped the young reliever springboard himself toward greater success at the big league level. Díaz notched 34 saves for the Mariners in 2017 and added a Major League-leading 57 in ‘18. He has produced a sub-2.00 ERA in two of his four seasons with the Mets.

Díaz was recently named the game’s best closer by MLB Network. He would like to enter the upcoming regular season still feeding off the thrill of closing the championship game and giving Puerto Rico the title it nearly gained in both of the past two Classics.