A week before the Wild Card game, it seemed to many that Yandy Diaz’s return from the injured list was being hastened by the Rays to a point of perhaps being risky. Surely they wouldn’t put his health on the line just for a chance to use his bat, but still, were they sure he was actually ready to play?
On Wednesday afternoon the team released their Wild Card lineup, and not only was Diaz starting the game, he was hitting lead off. It was implausible that a man who hadn’t played in a game since July, and hadn’t seen any substantial play since his activation, should be used in such an incredibly high leverage situation.
In the first at-bat of the first inning, Yandy Diaz silenced all the disbelievers by hitting a solo home run to right field. Two innings later he did it again, to almost the exact same place. And as he rounded the bases with an enormous grin on his face, it was clear to everyone watching: don’t doubt Yandy Diaz.
Prior to the game, during a press scrum, someone asked where Diaz would be nervous given that there were over 50,000 fans attending that night’s game. “Really? There was people with guns when I played in Cuba.” It was with this simple yet powerful statement that Diaz managed to bookend the game perfectly: the joy of winning, and the sobering reality of how hard life can be for foreign-born players just looking to break into the big leagues.
Diaz’s journey hasn’t been an easy one, and he was a player whose potential was not so much overlooked by other teams, but never fully realized. At the age of 21, he defected from Cuba to the Dominican Republic. During previous attempts to defect, he was caught, and arrested by the Cuban government, but in 2013 he and two others were successful in breaking free. By August of that same year, he had been signed to a $300,000 deal with the Cleveland Indians.
It would be unfair to call Diaz a below-the-radar player in Cleveland, as he hit a combined .283/.361/.366 over his 88 games with the Indians, but the power just wasn’t there, he had only one home run over two seasons, along with 13 doubles, and three triples. With the Rays, those triples suddenly became home runs, and the doubles increased as well. He hit a whopping 14 regular season home runs (and two very impressive postseason ones so far), and increased his doubles up to 20 in a single season with the Rays.
So where did this power come from. Yes, we’ve all seen Diaz’s impressive arms, so obviously he has the tools to swing the bat hard, but a player doesn’t just suddenly become a home run hitter overnight.
As it turns out, it was all about timing. In a spring feature in the Tampa Bay Times, hitting coach Chad Mottola explained, “The ball was getting deep on him so he was getting it less in the air the way the whole swing path works. Now he’s getting his timing better by playing every day and he’s catching the ball out front.”
Or as Diaz explained it, “It was me trying to get to the ball faster, and that would create more power.”
Though Diaz’s season was shortened by injury, it’s incredible to see what he was able to accomplish in only 79 games. He’s here for the postseason, when his team needs those skills the most, and if he’s able to stay healthy for 2020, there’s no telling what he’ll be able to accomplish.
For a man who went from playing in front of people with guns, to a Wild Card hero who learned to channel his own power, it’s truly moving to see what Yandy Diaz has been able to accomplish.