Red Sox shortstop Jose Iglesias, left, greets pinch runner Jonathan Diaz, center, after Diaz scored the winning in Boston's walk-off win over the Blue Jays Sunday at Fenway Park. Diaz spent seven years in Toronto's minor-league system, including parts of five seasons with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. (USA TODAY SPORTS)
Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Diaz earned his shot
BOSTON -- Of course, over the span of eight seasons, parts of five of which he spent in New Hampshire as a member of the Fisher Cats, doubts crept in for Jonathan Diaz.
Since 2006 he’d been drafted, signed, played at five levels, got promoted or demoted 11 times, was granted free agency by the Blue Jays, agreed to join the Red Sox, and settled into his new organization at Triple-A — but he’d never earned The Call to the big leagues. So the question came naturally.
“You always have that in the back of your mind,” he admitted this week, “like, ‘Jeez. Will it ever happen?’”
Then it did. Last Saturday, as he was preparing to play his 764th minor-league game, the phone rang and Diaz was told it was time to come to Boston. By then it was already 12:15 p.m., and first pitch that Saturday afternoon was at 4, so he packed his wife and three kids into the car as quickly as possible and headed north on I-95 from Pawtucket. Typically the drive takes an hour; Diaz jokes that he made it in 30 minutes.
And he might’ve, because there’s no traffic in the way when you’re floating on air.
“Amazing,” he said. “Imagine something you’ve worked for your entire life, a dream since you were a little kid. Definitely an amazing feeling.”
His hasty call-up didn’t leave him enough time to get out on the field before the game, so the first time he stepped onto the diamond as a big leaguer it was to take his position as the Red Sox’s starting third baseman.
He had butterflies, for sure, but he settled down and would’ve had his first career hit had it not been for a pretty diving catch by center fielder Colby Rasmus. As it was, he scored a run that day, then another the next, coming on as a pinch-runner in the ninth inning and crossing the plate with the deciding run as the Red Sox walked off with a win.
“It’s Fenway Park. It’s crazy just to say that out loud. I will definitely cherish that moment,” said Diaz, who pinch hit for Dustin Pedroia in the eighth inning of Thursday’s 8-2 Red Sox victory over San Diego. He flied out to center, then played the ninth inning at second base.
Interestingly, and in what he said was an “ironic” twist, Diaz’s debut and his first big-league celebration came against the Jays, the franchise that took him in the 12th round of the 2006 amateur draft, in whose system he spent his first seven pro seasons, and who might’ve been his first major-league team had he not been injured in a car accident while hitting .297 at Triple-A in 2011.
As it was, Diaz spent more time in Manchester than anywhere else in the Blue Jays hierarchy, making 1,114 plate appearances, and playing in 297 games — which is the third-most in Fisher Cats history. He was in the club’s opening day lineup in 2010, ’11 and ’12, and though he hit just .222 at Double-A, his appeal to the organization was more his bat than his glove.
Though in 2010 he became New Hampshire’s all-time single-season leader in plate appearances without a home run (385), that same season he also became the team’s record holder in single-season fielding percentage for a shortstop (.983), and ultimately that’s what brought him barreling toward Boston last weekend.
He was hitting just .242 at Pawtucket — with a .350 on-base percentage — but when shortstop Stephen Drew went down for a few days after tweaking his hamstring, the Sox needed someone who could play on the left side of the infield. Brandon Snyder was called up, too, to play third base, but Boston’s brass believed they still needed more defense.
And having watched him for three months at Triple-A, Snyder says they called upon the right guy.
“He works as hard as anybody, and he’s probably one of the best defensive players I’ve ever played with. He’s unbelievable,” said Snyder, who has been starting at third base, and homered Thursday. And who compared Diaz to another of his former PawSox teammates: Jose Iglesias.
“They’re two obviously different players,” Snyder said, “but the thing about Diaz, when he makes plays you don’t even think they’re that great of a play because he makes them look so easy. Iggy has more of a little bit of a flair to him, but both those guys, two of the best in baseball. It’s fun to watch them play.”
At least this time, Boston fans may not get to watch him play on the big stage for much longer. The Sox are hopeful Drew will return this weekend, and when he does it’s likely Diaz will be the one demoted in favor of a reliever.
But while he’s got the chance, he intends to seize the moment. He’s been studying his teammates and their habits, taking note of how hard and smart the Red Sox work, and reaching the conclusion that the players are at this level for a reason. He’s studied what guys are doing, what makes them successful, what their mindset is, and how they prepare, trying to take advantage of his glimpse at what goes on behind the scenes in order to emulate it and improve.
He’s also learned his way around the video equipment — which he says is more sophisticated and helpful than what’s available in the minors. At 28 years old, he’s long been a professional, though now that he’s reached the pinnacle he’s trying to take his professionalism to another level, while also doing whatever he can to help his new team.
“I’m just going to doing what I do, working hard, and playing the game the way I know how to play it,” he said. “Whatever the team asks of me, I’ll do it. However long it is, I don’t know, but whatever it is that I can do to help the team win, that’s what I’m going to do.”
And even if a demotion does come, they’ll never be able to take away an achievement earned over five stays in New Hampshire and “eight years of grinding.”
“The way I went about it was just stay positive, go about my business, and expect the best,” Diaz said. “It ended up working out — and I’m happy I can at least say that I made it to the big leagues.”
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.