Why replacing Edwin Diaz will be a struggle for Mets — especially off the field
PORT ST. LUCIE -- On the surface at least, it was business as usual in the Mets’ clubhouse on Thursday afternoon, some players packing for a trip to a game in West Palm Beach, others shooting the breeze at their lockers before a workout. At one point Buck Showalter cracked a joke to a group of players in the middle of the room, and they laughed hysterically.
It didn’t mean they weren’t hurting for Edwin Diaz, their fallen teammate and the best closer in baseball last year. It’s just the way of the world for pro athletes; they become hardened to the reality of injuries, always moving on, knowing the games must be played no matter what.
Yet beneath that surface, when players were asked individually about Diaz, there was no mistaking what a bombshell had been dropped on them. Perhaps more on a personal level than anything else.
They had just been told as a team that Diaz almost certainly will be out for the season, undergoing surgery Thursday afternoon after tearing the patellar tendon in his right knee in a group celebration of his save in the WBC game Wednesday night, and it was revealing that all they really wanted to talk about was what he meant to them off the field more so than on it.
“He was a beacon of light for me,” said Drew Smith. “He’s always happy, always smiling. Over the course of a long season, with the ups and downs of baseball, to have a constant positive presence, no matter if he pitches good or bad, is always encouraging to a fellow relief pitcher who has been through the ups and downs as well.
“It’s just a dagger, it really is, to have something like that happen to a guy everybody loves.”
Brandon Nimmo said Diaz’s influence went beyond his fellow relievers as well.
“He always brought that big, infectious smile and personality to the clubhouse,” Nimmo said. “He was never anxious, never nervous. Those are the things you can’t replace.”
Of course, you can also make the case that as a closer Diaz can’t be replaced either, at least the 2022 version of “Sugar,” as his teammates call him, who was practically untouchable last season, remarkably striking out 17.1 batters per nine innings.
Yet that’s where players differ from fans and media. That part they’re trained to believe they can overcome, that on a team as talent-rich as the Mets, someone will step up to do the job in the ninth inning. Or perhaps a more than just one guy.
Nimmo, in fact, was quick to mention that David Robertson has experience as a closer, and, “he’s absolutely nasty.”
Even at age 37 Robertson does loom now as the most likely candidate to do most of the closing. Perhaps Showalter will find matchup spots to use left-hander Brooks Raley in the ninth inning. As much as matchups could dictate the use of Adam Ottavino in that spot where his sweeping slider could shut down some tough right-handed hitters.
But because runners stole bases easily off Ottavino last season, and left-handers hit .304 against him, Robertson may be best-suited for getting those last three outs.
On Thursday he said he’d be fine with whatever Showalter decided.
“I came here to pitch wherever they want me to and have a chance to win a championship,” Robertson said. “I think those outs in the earlier innings are just as important. The ninth inning is just a little more magnified.”
Mets fans might argue there’s more to it, having been haunted over the years by failures of closers in big spots, and to a large extent that was the beauty of Diaz. For the first time in forever, it seemed, the home fans weren’t fearing the worst with a one-run lead in the ninth inning.
Instead Diaz made those last three outs a celebration, starting with the trumpet music. Indeed, when he wiped out the LA Dodgers in the ninth inning on the night Timmy Trumpet played Diaz’s entrance song live, a potential jinx if there ever was one, the Mets’ faithful were sure it was their year.
Turned out it wasn’t, of course, but Diaz was practically perfect until the end. And now he’s likely gone for the season due to a freakish injury that GM Billy Eppler said he couldn’t be sure exactly how it happened in that celebration Wednesday.
Eppler said such tear in the patellar tendon usually happens “when force is applied to the knee,’’ which indicated that perhaps one of his teammates on Team Puerto Rico accidentally caused the injury.
In any case, as hard as the news hit everyone in the organization, Eppler made a point of noting that when he talked by phone to Diaz on Wednesday night, after the injury, “He was in great spirts.”
Eppler chuckled and said, “The dude doesn’t get rattled.”
It seemed like small consolation for a team whose owner has taken the payroll to record-setting levels in pursuit of a championship this season. But the more you talked to players after Eppler’s press conference, the more you could understand why hearing Diaz in relatively good spirits meant something to everybody.
“That’s why we love him,” Drew Smith said. “That’s who he is.”
That’s who they’ll miss. The rest of it, somehow, they’re convinced they’ll figure it out.