Edwin Díaz flourishing under New York spotlight

Mike Lupica

By Mike Lupica

Edwin Díaz got another save on Friday night against the Pirates, a five-out effort that kept the Mets ahead of the Braves and in first place in the National League East. It was his 30th save of the season. There are others with more in the NL, but no relief pitcher in baseball is as important to his team as Díaz is to the Mets — or as dominant.

A lot of Mets fans didn’t want him around after his first three seasons in New York, even though he was a young guy with a big arm, dazzling stuff and had once saved 57 games for the Mariners. There were too many late-inning failures in New York. He had seven blown saves in his first season with the Mets and six last season, one that ended with a 3.45 earned run average and 43 hits allowed in 62 2/3 innings.

Now, Díaz is a rock star at Citi Field — entering games to the fanfare of trumpet music and making the crowd go wild as he makes his way to the mound. This is a team that has Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom and Pete Alonso, who leads the league with 113 RBIs, plus Francisco Lindor, a shortstop who is going to end up knocking in 100 runs himself this season. They are stars, too. But the Mets would have had no chance to still be in first place and ahead of the Braves without the way Díaz has closed for them.

“[Díaz] never takes a hitter off,” manager Buck Showalter said after the Mets beat the Pirates, 4-3, on Friday. “He never coasts. In that way, he has a lot of Max [Scherzer] in him. They’re not only going to go to the well when they have to.”

Showalter was asked what he knew about Díaz before he was managing him.

“I remember him from when I was still managing the Orioles,” Buck said. “I remember a guy with an electric arm, who could throw a fastball with late life and get you out with a slider when he got behind. It meant he could get you out two ways. I guess everybody can see that he still can.”

There were always flashes of that kind of electric stuff when Díaz got to New York — just not enough and not enough consistency over a whole season, even when he still seemed capable of striking out the world at his best. By the end of last season, when he would come out of the bullpen to try to end a game right for the Mets, there wasn’t the kind of noise and excitement that greets him now. The crowd at Citi Field just held its collective breath.

Not every player can survive a New York experience like that — or come back from it. There are players who come to New York from out of town and simply cannot handle the city, its big stage and high expectations — and eventually they have to go find themselves and rebuild their careers somewhere else. Not Díaz.

“The way he has come back,” Showalter said, “tells you a lot more about this young man than just his talent and his arm.”

He hadn’t pitched much in September before Friday night, because the Mets hadn’t had enough late-inning leads. Showalter has brought him into the eighth inning before this season — and he did it again on Friday. And to get the last three outs on this night, he needed help around the one strikeout he got in the ninth. But, the Mets have been pulling on the rope together all season.

Díaz opened the Pirates ninth by walking Ben Gamel on four pitches. Greg Allen ran for him and tried to steal second.

“People aren’t going to just wait around and try to get three hits off Edwin,” Showalter said.

Díaz’s average time to home plate for the season with runners on base was around 1.7 seconds. The Mets wanted him to speed that up. Last night with Allen running, he was under 1.5.

“Three-tenths of a second is a lot in those moments,” Showalter said.

Catcher Tomás Nido made a near-perfect throw. Because the throw was that accurate, Luis Guillorme was allowed to block the bag with his leg. The replay clearly showed Allen was out.

Showalter: “It took three guys doing their jobs exactly right to get one big out.”

Díaz struck out Ke’Bryan Hayes. But then, Cal Mitchell hit what looked like a rocket to right field. Jeff McNeil — who has played mostly second base for the Mets but can play anywhere and who had taken extra bases away from Oneil Cruz earlier in the game — went back, reached for the wall with his right hand and made the catch to end the game. Put it in the books, as Mets radio announcer Howie Rose says.

Besides Díaz’s 30 saves, he has 107 strikeouts in 56 2/3 innings and a 1.43 ERA. It turns out New York wasn’t too much for him. Now, he’s the one who is almost always too much for opposing teams. There are a lot of valuable players in the NL this season, but no one more valuable than Díaz has been to the Mets. Sound the trumpets for that.

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