CINCINNATI -- Reds rookie reliever Alexis Díaz had yet to inherit a bases-loaded situation in the big leagues this season. That changed on Sunday afternoon when he was needed in the eighth inning with one out to avert a crisis created by Hunter Strickland.
High leverage? High intensity? Yes and yes. For Díaz, however, it proved to be no problem. He struck out two batters in the eighth inning to leave the bases full and two more in the ninth to complete a five-out save as the Reds held on for an 8-5 victory over Chicago.
“My mindset was not letting a run score in that inning. I was out there ready to attack the hitters and sure enough, I was able to get out of there," Díaz said via translator Jorge Merlos after his team snapped a five-game losing streak.
It had been a back-and-forth game as Reds starter Justin Dunn surrendered a lead twice by giving up five earned runs -- with three home runs -- over 3 2/3 innings. It was 5-5 in the fifth inning when the Reds scored three runs on Jose Barrero's RBI single to left field and a two-run double to right-center field by No. 9 hitter Austin Romine.
The bullpen worked 5 1/3 scoreless innings, but the game nearly went off the rails for the Reds in the top of the eighth inning. Strickland, who has been used in the closer role for the past couple of months, has struggled of late to retire hitters. That trend continued vs. Chicago.
Patrick Wisdom reached on a check-swing single to lead off the eighth, and Strickland issued back-to-back one-out walks that loaded the bases for Nelson Velazquez. Manager David Bell turned the game over to Díaz.
"You’re hoping he comes in and you get out of that with maybe a run or two, and still have a lead," Bell said.
Díaz delivered better than that. First, he struck out Velazquez with an 88 mph slider that dove outside and just above the dirt. Ian Happ followed and struck out on another 88 mph slider in the dirt to end the threat and leave the bases loaded.
Excited in the moment, Díaz pounded his glove once as he walked off the mound.
"To completely shut it down against those two hitters, it’s pretty special," Bell said. "We know he has a great fastball, but he was also doing it with his slider. I think for any pitcher in this game, getting five outs to end the game is really difficult. He looked really comfortable doing it."
In the ninth inning, Seiya Suzuki grounded to shortstop and reached on a Barrero fielding error. Díaz struck out Franmil Reyes with another slider before Nico Hoerner hit a single to center field to bring the tying run to the plate.
Wisdom flied out to left field before Díaz froze Zach McKinstry with another 88 mph slider for the game-ending strike three and his fifth save.
In 47 games this season, Strickland has a 5.70 ERA and seven saves with a 1.69 WHIP over 42 2/3 innings. He retired his first batter only 27 times. Since the All-Star break, he's blown two saves.
Díaz has a 1.83 ERA and 0.95 WHIP in 42 appearances over 44 1/3 innings. Since he returned from the injured list on July 8 -- after dealing with right biceps tendinitis -- he has a 0.82 ERA while retiring 33 of 40 batters.
The slider has been a big part of his success.
“Really, it’s ever since I’ve come off the injured list that I’ve felt really good with my slider, and I’ve been using it a lot more often," Díaz said. "It’s all because of the work I’ve been doing after the injured list. I’m really working hard on it. It shows that it’s paid off.”
Bell has often avoided defining bullpen roles but had installed Strickland as his main ninth-inning reliever to help him prepare better. Díaz has been used in the highest leverage situations, regardless of the inning.
"We have options, but Díaz, I don’t think it’s any secret. He’s pitching as well as anyone in baseball right now, so we’ll definitely keep looking to go to him in the absolute most important spots," Bell said. "A lot of times that will be the ninth."
Díaz has long had an idea of what's required to be a closer. His brother, Edwin, has done it successfully for years, finishing games for the Mariners and Mets. But the younger Díaz is not lobbying for the closer role on the Reds.
"I’m not thinking about that but if the moment comes, obviously I’m going to be ready for it," he said. "Right now, I’m just thinking about going out there whenever I’m called.”