The last thing the pitching-strapped Mariners needed this week was a closer who can’t be counted on to throw strikes, much less close games.
A revelation as a rookie in 2016, Edwin Diaz is mired in the kind of sophomore slump that could make him a Comeback Player of the Year candidate in 2018. He’s got the same bounce in his step out of the bullpen, the same upbeat demeanor on the mound, but when he throws the ball, you don’t know where it’s going to go.
More troubling, neither does he.
Diaz walked 15 batters in 51-plus innings last season. Through 15 innings this season, he’s already walked 10. Four of those walks were issued consecutively Monday night, turning what should have been a routine mop-up job — protecting a 6-3 lead in the top of the ninth — into a crisis severe enough to induce vomiting.
Inexperience could be a culprit. Diaz is 23, and until he was 22, his role in the minor leagues was as a starter. Adjusting from one or two guaranteed assignments per week to the uncertain timetable of a closer requires a flexibility, both physical and mental, that Diaz has yet to master.
What, then, are the Mariners’ options? A minor-league demotion for a refresher course in control? Moving him into middle relief, a less stressful assignment than retiring the side with the batter at the plate representing the go-ahead run? Or stay the course, trusting that his ninth-inning struggles can be solved with some combination of muscle memory and prayers?
The Mariners picked Option B, middle relief. But here’s a better idea: Return Diaz to his roots as a starting pitcher.
Give Diaz the ball for, say, three innings but make it the first three innings. There’s a different pressure between beginning a game and ending it. Early walks that load the bases and lead to two-run rallies aren’t helpful, but they aren’t game-killing setbacks, either.
Freed from the challenge of recording the ninth-inning outs that determine victories from defeats, Diaz can go to work on repairing mechanical, release-point flaws against the major league hitters he used to dominate.
I’m advocating this merely as a stopgap solution that provides the Mariners help on two fronts: They need a starting pitcher for the short term, and they need Edwin Diaz to eventually resemble Edwin Diaz.
It was about a year ago when general manager Jerry Dipoto decided Diaz had a more certain big-league future as a reliever than as a starter. Solid call. At 6-foot-3 and 165 pounds, Diaz is not built to throw the 200 innings a season expected of a rotation regular.
Furthermore, his repertoire — fastball and slider — is limited. Although both are lights-out pitches, professional hitters tend to be adept at handling lights-out pitches in their third at-bat. If Diaz is closing, hitters rarely see him more than twice in a series.
His reconfiguration from starter to reliever made sense 12 months ago, and makes sense going forward.
But for now? Diaz belongs in a comfort zone that can liberate him from his not-so-grand funk. He started 71 games in the minors. He’s familiar with the drill.
He’s also become familiar with the misfortune awaiting two-pitch closers whose inability to control their slider forces them to rely on fastballs sent over the outfield fence.
On the bright side, Diaz’s arm is healthy. At least I presume it’s healthy. Every hour brings some bad news about a Seattle pitcher suffering from, uh, you name it.
In the case of Diaz, his issues appear steeped in confidence, or lack thereof. A temporary assignment to Tacoma will not bolster his confidence.
Starting a game or two for the Mariners, on the other hand, could do wonders. Fundamental achievements — throwing strikes, getting ahead in the count, keeping runners off the bases — are more attainable in the first inning, when the slate is clean, than in the ninth, when it’s all on the line.
Edwin Diaz was born to close, but he grew up as a starter. Sometimes in baseball, as in life, the best way to advance is to revisit the past.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath