John McGrath

Too much stress too soon? Relief hard to find for young relievers

Seattle closer Edwin Diaz throws against the Los Angeles Angels on Sunday during the ninth inning.
Seattle closer Edwin Diaz throws against the Los Angeles Angels on Sunday during the ninth inning. The Associated Press

Last August, the Mariners gave the most stressful job in baseball to a rookie who began the season as a Double-A starter. Edwin Diaz was 22, owner of a fastball commonly called “electric,” a somewhat less reliable slider, and the kind of supreme confidence that differentiates closers from the rest of us.

Diaz was an immediate revelation, posting a strikeout rate – 15.33 per nine innings – that set a club-record. The Mariners had found their closer of the future.

Less than a year later, the future has become a day-to-day proposition for Diaz. Some days are wonderful. Some are just OK. And some, such as last Wednesday, when he gave up a game-winning single that followed a game-tying home run, belong in a white garbage bag.

Afterward, Mariners manager Scott Servais aptly described a one-man role critical enough to turn what should have been a 4-3 victory into a 5-4 defeat.

Said Servais: “It’s kind of a roller coaster ride, sitting in that seat.”

Which poses a question about the wisdom of putting in that seat a young adult who’d earned one minor-league save before he was fast-tracked to the majors.

Diaz appears unusually mature for a 23-year-old. He stood in front of his locker the other day and answered questions about his ninth-inning implosion with patience and poise. Although English is a second language for the native of Humacao, Puerto Rico, he doesn’t require an interpreter.

Still, a year ago, he was pitching before crowds of 2,500 in the Southern League. Last Wednesday, some 30,000 fans cheered as he trotted out of the bullpen, and groaned as he walked off the mound.

Too much, too soon?

Diaz is not the youngest closer in the majors. That distinction belongs to Toronto’s Roberto Osuna, who at 22 already is a three-year veteran with 75 career saves.

Osuna made news recently when he was unavailable to help the Blue Jays stifle a Royals’ ninth-inning rally in Kansas City. His arm was fine. He was fresh. Manager John Gibbons said afterward that Osuna “wasn’t feeling well.”

Sort of, but not really. He wasn’t feeling right.

“I’m not myself right now,” Osuna said. “I don’t know how to explain it. I’m just a little bit lost right now.”

Osuna, it soon was learned, is coping with an anxiety disorder. He’s receiving help from the Blue Jays’ team psychologist, and anybody belonging to an extended family familiar with mental-health issues – a subset that includes, like, everybody – has to root for Roberto Osuna.

Raised in Mexico and producing saves at a record pace in Canada, Osuna has shown a remarkable ability to adjust to a foreign culture while excelling at a job where the outcome of a three-hour game depends on him dealing for five or seven minutes.

But, again, I wonder: Too much, too soon?

The late Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn would have dismissed any questions about the pressure young closers face, because, for one, Spahn wasn’t inclined to give up the ball. (More than half of his 665 career starts – 382 – were complete games.)

For another, Spahn knew pressure at its ultimate. He was a decorated World War II veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

“After I went overseas,” Spahn recalled, “I never thought of anything I was told to do in baseball as hard work. You get over thinking like that when you spend days on end sleeping in frozen tank trunks in enemy-threatened territory.”

Spahn’s combat experience steeled him for the relatively low-stress task of pitching a baseball, yet I doubt he’d have recommended combat as an appealing avenue to big-league stardom.

As for Diaz, he’s been spared the duty that returned Spahn to the States with the shrewd perspective of a survivor. When Diaz was brought in Sunday to face the Angels’ Albert Pujols with two men on in the eighth inning, the fate of the free world did not hang in the balance.

Easy for me to say.

The last time I tossed late-inning pitches, it was during an intramural softball game in college. My team had a three-run lead, and I walked in four runs.

The jerks wouldn’t swing their bats.

John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath