It’s the balance Edwin Diaz knows he must harness – mustering every bit of his fierce competitiveness while still pitching with controlled focus.
The Mariners closer allowed the former to best him at times last season, especially at Safeco Field in front of all the home fans he knew he had to prove himself to.
“I feel nervous almost every time out there,” Diaz said recently. “But I know that’s no problem for me. If I feel that then I’m happy because I’m into the game. If you play with your heart then you have to feel a little bit nervous.”
But he's had to learn to command it.
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The Mariners don’t fully know how to explain Diaz’s eye-popping contrast between his play in Seattle compared to other venues last season – Diaz’s first full major league season – other than to chalk it up to youth.
There was just a different kind of pressure at home compared to the mentality the 24-year-old had on the road. Diaz had a 5.76 ERA at Safeco Field; 1.24 away from it.
Check this out: Diaz threw 29 2/3 innings at home and allowed eight home runs, walked eight, struck out 35 while opponents hit .265 against him. On the road? He threw 36 1/3 innings, allowed two home runs, walked 14 batters, struck out 54 and opponents hit just .106.
Mariners pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. just shook his head when asked for an explanation this spring.
“I don’t know,” Stottlemyre said with a laugh.
He thought a little longer.
“He’s always … when he gets in between the lines, he’s going to go hard,” Stottlemyre said. “But the game can get fast for him. And it has. It has spiraled on him in the past. Sometimes young players just don’t know where to go and how to stop it.”
But now he knows.
It started when the Mariners demoted Diaz in May, temporarily stripping him of his closer role for 10 days.
They wanted him to work on mechanics, but Stottlemyre said they also wanted him to be able to slow the game down – while still having that fiery intensity that allows him to touch triple-digits with his fastball.
“We went down and went back to work on some mechanical things so that when it got fast or when he got fast and was spraying the ball, he had somewhere to go,” Stottlemyre said. “Somewhere to go in terms of delivery-wise and slowing himself down and go back to making pitches.
“And in the game, as far as learning to slow that down, that’s just time. That’s maturity and experience.”
It also helps to have some advice from a pitcher who's been around. That's where Juan Nicasio comes in.
The 31-year-old Nicasio, signed by the Mariners to fill out their bullpen in the offseason, and Diaz might as well be attached to each other’s hips. Nicasio, like Diaz, is a former starting pitcher who found more success in a reliever role.
“He knows how to pitch,” Diaz said. “So I talk to him a lot, how he can teach me how to pitch, too, how to attack hitters to get an out.”
“I try to help because he’s young,” Nicasio said. “So I’m just trying to help him on a couple of things.”
And it reminded Mariners manager Scott Servais of Diaz’ first call-up to the big leagues. The Mariners had veteran pitcher Joaquin Benoit, who was instrumental in developing Diaz’s slider.
Diaz had the wicked fastball, but no reliable secondary pitch when he made his big-league debut in 2015. Servais said all reports from the Mariners’ minor league staff mentioned how inconsistent Diaz was with his slider.
“Joaquin started showing him a different grip,” Servais said during spring training. “He took it and ran with it and now he’s got a plus slider.”
And now Diaz has found a new mentor in Nicasio, who isn’t so much helping develop Diaz’s pitches as he is developing Diaz’s routine and preparation.
Of all the pitchers who had at least 10 saves last year, only the Blue Jays’ Roberto Osuna (23) is younger than Diaz, who was tied for fourth in the American League in saves last year, finishing with 34 despite that brief demotion.
“Just having a guy like Nicasio out there to help train his thought process and his mindset is going to help him this year,” Stottlemyre said. “This is a guy who knows how to prepare himself and has done as good as anybody in the game. They are tied at the hip and it’s a great thing.
“Eddie just turned 24. He’s still a kid. And to his defense, he hasn’t had much in terms of somebody really taking him through the ropes and showing him what the role entails.”
Ryon Healy experienced as much success as anybody against Diaz. He was with the Athletics last year when he smoked an RBI double in the top of the ninth inning in what would be the deciding pitch in a 4-3 Mariners loss that July.
“You know, it’s not a very comfortable at-bat,” Healy said. “You better be ready to go Pitch One because he’s coming at you.”That was in the thick of Diaz’s struggles, especially with it being in haunting Safeco Field. Still, Healy didn’t speak of that at-bat with particular fondness.
And if Diaz is bringing it, you better, too.
“Seeing him out there, that really helped raise my focus and competitive edge,” Healy said. “Facing a guy like that when you know he’s got some of the best stuff in the league. You just have to bring it. You really have to heighten your focus the minute you step into the box.”
And then Diaz stepped onto the mound on Opening Day at Safeco Field last week, knowing it was a chance to shove all those home struggles behind him. It wasn’t easy – he hit two batters and was flustered by speedy Rajai Davis on the base paths – but he stranded Davis at third when he struck out the side, ending it on a 98-mph fastball that raced past the Indians’ Tyler Naquin in the 2-1 Mariners win.
The next save opportunity two games later was far easier. He struck out the side again – a common theme as Diaz opened the season with eight consecutive strikeouts. His strikeouts-per-nine-innings is sitting at a not-too-bad 24.
“My first season was amazing,” Diaz said. “I felt really good and nobody knew me. Last year, I felt I pitched pretty good for my first full season. Everybody’s starting to know me more and they know how I pitch. This year, they will know me even more, but I feel more ready now.
“I know how to pitch now. That’s what it is for me.”
So, one last stab at some sort of reason why home was so difficult compared to the road?
“I watched how I attacked hitters,” Diaz said. “And at home I think I wasn’t as big with my fastball. On the road I was maybe throwing it more often. So this year, my mentality is to attack every hitter with my heater.
“If they don’t hit it, then keep throwing it. It doesn’t matter who is in the box, throw my fastball and try to let them hit it if they can.”
‘SUGAR’ FOR THE ROAD
Edwin Diaz, nicknamed "Sugar," was almost a entirely different pitcher on the road. His splits at Safeco Field compared to when he wasn’t were so glaringly drastic in his first full season of major league service. Check it out: