Jumbo Diaz definitely was the elephant in the room, the pachyderm in the clubhouse. What do you do with a 347-pound pitcher who registers on the Richter Scale when he plants his foot to deliver a pitch?
Answer? You keep him in the minors for 13 years and hope some day he reduces his intake of beans, rice and anything deep fried, hoping his belt size shrinks from the circumference of a La-Z-Boy recliner to at least the size of a kitchen chair.
Why keep him? Because he can throw hard. He can throw with control and command. And anybody who sticks around as long as the 30-year-old, 6-foot-4 right-hander certainly has dedication and a work ethic.
His uniform fronts have read: South Georgia, Great Falls, Ogden, Columbus, Vero Beach, Jacksonville, Great Lakes, Frisco, Frederick, Bowie, Indianapolis and Louisville — something that sounds like the stops of a Greyhound bus.
Finally, though, the front of his uniform has a big-league logo: The Cincinnati Reds’. Diaz was called up Friday from Triple-A Louisville to replace Tony Cingrani, who was optioned to Louisville to try to find his lost confidence and misplaced command.
Diaz struggled in his debut, allowing two homers in the seventh inning as Toronto rallied for a 14-9 win. However, two things made for Diaz’s promotion. Last winter he shed nearly 70 pounds and is down to 278. And he has earned the promotion by going 2-2 with a 1.35 ERA as Louisville’s closer, convering 18 of 19 saves. In 33 1/3 innings he gave up 25 hits, 10 walks and one homer, struck out 31, and hitters batted .208 against him in 340 minor-league appearances -— a long, long road since the native of the Dominican Republic signed his first contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2001.
"I am so excited," he said before Friday’s game. "I was talking to my wife a couple of weeks ago and told her, ‘I signed my first contract with the Dodgers 13 years ago, May 14, 2001. And I’ll keep fighting and working hard to get that call."
On Friday morning, Diaz was in the shower and when he stepped out he noticed the message light blinking.
"I saw I missed three calls and I wondered, ‘Oh, who called me? It’s too early,’" he said. "They called back and it was (Louisville pitching coach) Teddy Power and he told me, ‘Congratulations, you are going to Cincinnati.’ I was so excited to get that call."
Diaz had an outstanding spring with the Reds and was one of the final cuts and he said they told him, "Keeping working hard because we consider you a part of the team. And that’s what I did every day, worked as hard as I could. They’d give me the ball in the ninth and I’d do my best. I want to do my best here, too, when they give me the ball. Just throw strikes and stay ahead of the hitters."
Diaz said he hometown of La Romano, D.R. is dancing on their porches, balconies and sidewalks over the news of his promotion.
So somewhere along the way, when he never advanced beyond Double-A until 2011, 10 years after he signed, he had to think about trying another vocation, right?
"Sometimes you get to the point, you wake up and say, ‘I’m working hard but I never get the call,’" he said. "You have to fight it because you never know when you might get the call. I worked hard every day, pitched hard every day thinking some day I’d get the call. And if I didn’t I knew I did the best I could. So today the call finally came."
Diaz walked into the clubhouse early Friday afternoon and was greeted warmly by his new teammates and said, "Losing the weight makes me feel better and lets me throw my ball better. Now I can throw two innings, back-to-back days, no problem. Couldn’t do that last year. Too much weight on me."
He is keeping the weight off with a salads, fruits, vegetables. And he knows it helped him to accomplish his mission of walking through a major-league clubhouse door.
"My first time, so excited, I looked around and said, ‘Oh, my god, this is why I’ve worked so hard for so long.’" And what would he feel like when he finally took the mound? "Oh, I don’t know. I’ll try to do the same as I do in Triple-A: take the ball, use my stuff, throw strikes, get out of innings quick."
Because there is a tough hombre named Aroldis Chapman doing the closing for the Reds, Diaz won’t do that job, unless Chapman is unavailable. That, though, doesn’t bother manager Bryan Price.
"He can pitch in any role," Price said. "He is used to pitch as a closer, but he can be in a late-game situation if we need him, depending upon the availability of Sam LeCure or Logan Ondrusek or J.J. Hoover or Manny Parra. Those guys have pitched a lot. We’ll see what we have but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in any role except closer — unless we really needed him."
Cingrani, a starter this season until Mat Latos came off the disabled list last Saturday, was placed in the bullpen. On Thursday he issued a bases-loaded walk to Pittsburgh’s Russell Martin in the 12th inning, a walk-off walk that beat the Reds, 4-3.
Cingrani will start every fifth day in Louisville to find what he has lost but when he returns he’ll be back in the bullpen unless there is an injury in the starting rotation.
"He is transitioning back to the bullpen because we have a healthy starting five and the bullpen is where he can help us best this year," said Price. "We’ve seen him in the past pitch very efficiently out of the bullpen. His history was as a college closer (at Rice University).
"He just hasn’t been sharp and not just in his two relief appearances," said Price of the 6-4, 215-pound left hander who is 2-8 with a 4.55 ERA. "Over the course of his last several starts, since he came off the disabled list (May 18) he has not pounded the strike zone with the regularity that we’re used to seeing. I’d like to see his command get better, which would be tough for him to do in long relief at this level."
That’s why Cingrani will start every fifth day in Louisville and Price said, "We hope it is a short stay because we believe we are better with Tony on our club."
Meanwhile, Diaz is finally in the major leagues, 13 years after he signed his first contract.