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Diaz struggling as Mariners closer as he struggles with control

UPDATED: Sun., May 7, 2017, 9:51 p.m.

Seattle Mariners closing pitcher Edwin Diaz throws against the Texas Rangers in the ninth inning of a baseball game, Friday, May 5, 2017, in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
Seattle Mariners closing pitcher Edwin Diaz throws against the Texas Rangers in the ninth inning of a baseball game, Friday, May 5, 2017, in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Fact No. 1: It’s early May.

Five weeks isn’t an insignificant sample size, but it’s not enough to make a concrete evaluation. Especially for a reliever.

Fact No. 2: He’s 23.

Most players his age are still finding themselves. So trials are normal. Tribulations, too. Especially in the majors.

But having said that – and it’s important to have done so – we still have to acknowledge Fact No. 3: Edwin Diaz is struggling.

The question is … is this just temporary?

Diaz’s emergence as the Mariners’ closer last year straddled the line between epic and legendary. He tallied a franchise-record 11 consecutive strikeouts in mid-July and became a Seattle sensation.

The 100 mph fastballs were mesmerizing. The buzz he generated cracked one million watts. You got the feeling fans would rather see the M’s hold a slight lead than a comfortable one just so they could see No. 39.

That electricity hasn’t worn off entirely, but Diaz’s dominance has waned. At least the numbers say it has.

Diaz has a 4.05 earned-run average with a pair of blown saves. His most glaring appearance came in the April 9 loss to the Angels, who scored three runs on him in the ninth inning to cap a six-run comeback.

Diaz also gave up a home run to Kole Calhoun on Tuesday, which allowed the Angels to tie the score and eventually win. He surrendered another homer in the ninth the next day, though the M’s still escaped with a one-run win.

It hasn’t been disastrous for the Puerto Rican so far, but it hasn’t been dazzling, either. So what’s the deal exactly? Are we talking about a couple of hiccups, or is this the beginning of a trend?

“Here’s the thing I tell people all the time about young guys that come in and dominate – it’s the sophomore year when the league gets a little more familiar with that player,” said Mariners pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. “The league is forcing him to throw strikes. They know in the hitting meeting what he likes to do late. They have the video tape. They’re forcing him to throw strikes.”

That wasn’t Stottlemyre being pessimistic so much as it was him being candid. He is acutely aware of Diaz’s God-given talents, but knows big-league hitters are millionaires for a reason.

Batters don’t chase Diaz as much as they did his rookie year. They’re far more patient with him now. And given that his command has been spotty this season, that patience has been painful.

But it’s also possible that the familiarity Stottlemyre spoke of showed up at the end of last season as well. Diaz, remember, didn’t finish 2016 on the most magical of notes.

On Aug. 15, after a stretch in which he had allowed just one run in 17 appearances, his ERA dipped as low as 1.64. But by the end of the year, it had risen to 2.79.

That’s still a respectable number, but it doesn’t leap off the stat sheet. And it makes you wonder if that final month of the season was foreshadowing what we’ve been seeing in 2017.

Obviously, that’s still to be determined. And in case you’re curious, Diaz is a long way from panicking.

“I’m doing OK. I know I can do better, but I have five saves already. I don’t care about my ERA or anything, I just pitch and do my job,” Diaz said. “I just need to be a little more aggressive.”

Being aggressive isn’t the issue so much as being accurate is. Stottlemyre said Diaz is at his best when he gets ahead in the count so he can get to his wipe-out slider. But too often this year, he’s gotten behind in the count, causing hitters to salivate as they sit on a fastball.

Will that change soon?

Mariners manager Scott Servais seems to think so. Asked about Diaz on Thursday, the skipper insisted that he is the same pitcher that enchanted Seattle last summer. Has he had a couple of rough outings? Sure. But his job is hardly in jeopardy.

“You don’t hesitate to put him in,” Servais said. “If we need those final three outs, we’re going to put him out there.”

There’s no doubt Diaz has nasty stuff. But there might be some doubt as to whether he will be a truly great closer.

At this point, the league has seemed to adjust him. Will he adjust back?

It’s your move, Edwin.

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