PORT ST. LUCIE — Edwin Diaz still has three days of spring training to consider, but admits the thought of entering Thursday night’s game to protect a Mets lead is tantalizing.
It will be Mets-Nationals, Opening Night, and with Jacob deGrom scheduled to start, chances are good Diaz will get thrust into such a situation.
“I have been preparing myself all spring to pitch in high leverage, whether it’s the eighth or the ninth,” Diaz said Friday before the Mets lost 7-3 to Washington in an exhibition game. “And if next Thursday comes around and we’re protecting a lead, I am looking forward to pitch the eighth or ninth inning, whatever the team needs from me to get that win.”
It’s a comforting proposition for manager Luis Rojas, who has received as close to perfection from the right-hander this spring as he could possibly ask. Diaz hadn’t allowed a run in five appearances, in which he surrendered only two hits, with no walks and seven strikeouts.
That dominance is a continuation of Diaz’s second half last season, when he was close to unhittable. Overall, he finished the season with a 1.75 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 25 ²/₃ innings. If there were any questions at the start of camp who would be the closer, they have been answered.
“It looks like he’s in a good place,” a scout said. “His body language projects confidence.”
The scout added that the true test might not come until Diaz has to respond from allowing a home run with the game on the line. Also, the consistency of Diaz’s slider “has been and will remain a concern,” according to the scout.
Diaz, 27, entered camp prepared to pitch after a rigorous offseason program, and he has impressed team officials with his demeanor.
“He’s more mature — another year in the big leagues,” Rojas said. “We all learned a lot last year because he gave us a lot to take into the offseason and I think he’s one of those guys who did that and he worked really hard. He’s just maturing into a veteran pitcher, a veteran closer. You could see him just becoming a monster.”
The centerpiece of the trade that sent top prospect Jarred Kelenic to the Mariners before the 2019 season, Diaz pitched to disastrous results in his first year with the Mets.
Last season — with no fans in major league ballparks because of the pandemic — Diaz didn’t face the firing squad when he failed. The fans are returning this season, and Diaz said that is exciting.
“Last year it was a shame that MLB, that we couldn’t have fans because of the pandemic,” Diaz said. “Fans obviously make the game more fun and they are the reason we go out there and compete the way we do. I am definitely looking forward to seeing them and hearing their reactions on certain things that happen in the game. That will make it more fun.”
It doesn’t hurt that the Mets are projected to compete for the NL East title, after an offseason that included the arrival of Francisco Lindor, James McCann and a multitude of depth moves.
“From the team aspect I am super happy with how we have been looking,” Diaz said. “Like I always say, if we are healthy we can definitely go a long way. The pitching staff is good, the infield, the outfield, it’s an elite team.
“Even our bench, it’s a major league bench and any of these guys can play as everyday players on many teams, but I am super happy with how we are looking right now. Personally I am excited to have a great year and help the team win and hopefully win a World Series with this team.”