The Mariners won't look to any one pitcher to fill the closer role, but a handful of pitchers.
The mercurial rise from solid starting pitching prospect, to converted reliever, to flame-throwing big league set-up man to taking over as the Mariners’ closer occurred in just five quick months last season for Edwin Diaz.
After his ascension in 2016 and a brilliant showing in the World Baseball Classic, Diaz was locked into the role and slated to be the Mariners’ closer of the foreseeable future.
A month and a half into the 2017 season, he has been demoted.
On Tuesday — a day after Diaz’s non-strike throwing implosion against the A’s — Mariners manager Scott Servais announced that a change was being made.
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“We’ve got to get Edwin right,” Servais said. “He’s got a great arm. We know what he can do when he is right. Right now, it’s probably not going to be in the ninth inning.”
Diaz stood at his locker and addressed the demotion without hiding. Even with less than a full year of big league experience, he understands that part of the responsibility of being a closer is to be there at times of failure and now relegation.
“I know I’m not pitching good right now,” he said. “And I just want the team to win. They talked to me. I agree with (Servais). I need to fix my things and then I will be back as the closer.”
The closing duties will now fall to a handful of pitchers with not any one specifically tasked to fill the role.
“We’ll piece it together,” Servais said.
The plan is to play matchups more in the ninth, meaning lefty Marc Rzepczynski and any of three right-handers — Steve Cishek, Tony Zych and Nick Vincent — could pitch to close out a game. Cishek, who lost his closing job to Diaz on Aug. 1 of last season, has the most experience, having saved 25 games in 2016 and 120 games in his career. But he’s just back from offseason hip surgery and the hope is not to overuse him early.
“We wanted to slow play him, but that might not be the case every night,” Servais said.
Diaz entered Monday night’s game with a 6-3 lead. He retired the first batter he faced on a pop-out, but then walked four straight batters before being lifted for Zych, who closed out a 6-5 win. Of the 28 pitches thrown by Diaz, just 12 were strikes.
“I’m going to talk with Eddie a little more,” Servais said. “He was really down last night, and disappointed as much as anything. It’s not like this guy’s been a closer for 10 years and I’m telling a guy that’s been in multiple All-Star games that he’s not the closer. It’s a 23 year old guy that was the right guy in the right spot for us last year. I will say, the one thing Eddie Diaz has shown us throughout his time here, if he has a rough stretch, he’s able to bounce back from it.”
The decision for the change wasn’t so much about the frustrating and disappointing results of that outing. This was about the factors behind the results — broken mechanics and an inability to fix them mid-game.
“What we saw last night was certainly a 23-year-old that didn’t have a good feel for what was going on out there and more importantly didn’t know how to fix it,” Servais said. “I think with where we are at the Major League level and the pressures of the ninth inning, it’s probably a situation where we do give him some work earlier int he game. Some nights it might be the sixth inning, it might be the the seventh inning or it might be more than one inning to get him back going.”
There was a feeling of helplessness for Diaz. He couldn’t throw the ball where he wanted and didn’t know how to fix it in the moment. There was panic in his mind and discombobulation with his body and his mechanics.
“I was thinking about a lot of stuff in that game,” he said. “That’s never happened in game to me before, never in my life.”
The process to fix Diaz began on Tuesday afternoon with pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. It started in the video room going over his mechanics. The coach and the reliever played catch together, discussing the mechanical changes that need to be addressed to get Diaz back to the flame-throwing phenomenon that was so different last season. They would throw and talk and at times Stottlemyre would demonstrate and Diaz tried to follow.
“Today was Day 1 of teaching the kid about body awareness and about himself,” Stottlemyre said. “We looked at some video of Pedro Martinez and how they both work. Really, it’s very comparable in terms of their bodies The one thing that Pedro did for a long time was to have that awareness and body control.”
Basically, Diaz is opening up to soon his delivery to home plate, meaning his arm is behind where it needs to be causing his fastball to run “arm side” or toward right-handed hitters.
“I’m taking him through some basic stuff and trying to keep it simple without confusing, stuff he can grab on to and take it into the game if he gets sideways again,” Stottlemyre said. “I’m going to cut down on his throwing program and take him up on the mound where guys make their living for 10 or 15 pitches every day until he can get a handle on his body. He’s never really had a feel or recognition of body awareness of where he needs to go when he needs to make mechanical adjustments.”
It was an identical process that Stottlemyre used with Taijuan Walker last season. Following an abysmal outing on Sept. 3 of last season, a broken Walker went to Stottlemyre ready to listen to whatever was needed to be done. Diaz didn’t need much prodding. He never wanted to experience that out of control feeling again.
“We needed to start working now,” Diaz said. “It was really good. I’m just trying to stay back on the rubber and let my arm get out front.”