HOUSTON (SportsRadio 610)- With his team trailing 4-1 and down to its final two outs on July 22 in Oakland, Dusty Baker went to his bench and summoned Yainer Diaz to pinch hit for Martín Maldonado.
Representing the tying run, Diaz watched a 94 MPH first pitch fastball from Trevor May sail wide of the plate, and then he fouled off a slider that just caught the outer part of the zone. May came inside with his slider on the next offering, and Diaz struck it 358 feet to deep left field, only to have Tony Kemp make a leaping catch against the wall.
Had the game been played inside Minute Maid Park instead of the Coliseum, Diaz would’ve leveled the score.
“Didn’t get the result we wanted, but I was able to make good contact,” Diaz told SportsRadio 610 through an interpreter.
While he was unsuccessful on that trip, Diaz is 5-for-16 as a pinch hitter this season, and he pointed to that at bat in Oakland as the pinch hit at bat he is most proud of.
“It was tougher to get ready (for that at bat). The cages in Oakland are out in center field, so I couldn’t have normal preparation like I would when knowing I’m coming into a game late.”
Pinch hitting was foreign to Diaz before the season started. It’s something that isn’t done at the minor league level, especially with a prospect of his stature, but he is 5-for-16 when coming off the bench this season, and while he says he’s still not comfortable with the role, his manager sees the opposite.
“It's a very difficult job to do as a young player, a young hitter,” Baker said. “The fact that he's aggressive, that helps.”
Baker, who himself was a .256 career-pinch hitter, has called it the hardest job in baseball. He tries to make it easier on his players by giving them plenty of time to prepare should the opportunity should arise, but the key is for them to be engrossed in the game being played in front of them for all nine innings.
“You got to be mentally and physically prepared,” Baker said. “I try to keep them engaged as much as possible. I encourage them to pay attention when they’re sitting on the bench, and have a good time, don’t be fooling around. Notice the pitcher might be tipping his glove on this or he might have a shorter stride on that, and just try to learn everything you can.”
Diaz developed a routine for days when he’s not in the lineup back when he was playing for the Guardians Arizona complex league team in 2018, but he says Astros hitting coach Troy Snitker has helped him add to it.
“I usually just go to the cage, hit off the tee there, do some front flips, front flips on an angle, and take some BP there.”
Diaz played sparingly the first two months of the season, but he’s compiled a .908 OPS since May 31. Still, his playing time has dwindled in recent weeks now that the Astro are playing with a full deck offensively for the first time all season.
Jose Abreu is blocking him from getting starts at first base, the return of Michael Brantley has taken away opportunities for him to DH, and Martín Maldonado is always going to catch Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez, so if the Astros are able to advance to postseason play Diaz’s best chance to contribute will likely be as a pinch hitter.