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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Same old long story with Edwin Diaz in Mets' loss to Braves

Mets relief pitcher Edwin Diaz stands on the

Mets relief pitcher Edwin Diaz stands on the mound after giving up a solo home run to Atlanta Braves designated hitter Marcell Ozuna to tie the score at 2-2 during the ninth inning of an MLB baseball game at Citi Field on Saturday, July 25, 2020. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Marcell Ozuna’s save-demolishing home run off Edwin Diaz in the ninth inning of the Mets’ 5-3 loss to the Braves on Saturday should not have been a surprise to anyone. Stomach-turning, sure. Aggravating, yes. But it was right on schedule. A better on-time arrival than the LIRR.

That’s because the shelf life of good feelings involving Diaz has lasted approximately 24 hours since his arrival in Flushing. How do we know this? Well, Diaz never had saves on back-to-back days a year ago despite coming to the Mets as arguably the best closer in the sport during his tenure with the Mariners.

So it only made sense that Diaz, after sealing the Mets’ 1-0 Opening Day win over the Braves, was headed for a spectacular implosion.

Problem is, when that happens to a closer, he tends to drag the entire operation down with him. And while Diaz is turning into a very unreliable pitcher in high-leverage situations, at least the shock-and-awe nature of his homer-prone repertoire ends the pain in quick, merciful fashion.

Diaz set a major-league record last season by teeing up 15 home runs in the ninth inning. Quite a feat. So bad, in fact, that you had to think he would be better in 2020, just by the law of averages. For a guy who throws in the high 90s, with a wicked slider, it was almost inconceivable to suggest that he could repeat the same disaster.

Judging by his own reaction Saturday, Diaz couldn’t believe it. As Ozuna’s ball sailed over the rightfield wall, he actually cracked a smile. Not in a funny ha-ha way, but the smile of someone who basically doesn’t know what else to do.

“I can’t do anything but laugh,” Diaz said, “when I do everything I want to do but that’s still the result what happens.”

The rest of the Mets? They’re not quite in on the cosmic joke. And two games into a 60-game season, manager Luis Rojas doesn’t have a ton of time to play around with, either.

Rojas praised Diaz afterward, saying his command looks improved from a year ago. That he looks very different — in a good way.

Then again, I wouldn’t blame Rojas if he decides to go in another direction, whether it’s Jeurys Familia, Dellin Betances or Justin Wilson. Take your pick. And the manager didn’t rule out trying another closer candidate.

There’s a reason why the Mets were reluctant to just hand Diaz the closer title, and it seems to be written in pencil, not indelible ink. When Rojas was asked point-blank Saturday if he’ll stick with Rojas in that role, the manager definitely hedged.

“He’s one of the guys that definitely closed in the past and we have much confidence in him doing it,” Rojas said before adding, “We have other guys, too, that can come in and close the game for us.”

As in everyone else. Because in two games, Diaz has done the most damage of any reliever, which makes Saturday’s meltdown especially frustrating. Overall, the bullpen had performed well, with everyone filling his role to near-perfection.

But we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s do a forensic study of Diaz’s ninth-inning malfeasance.

The ninth began in encouraging fashion for the Mets. Diaz whiffed Ozzie Albies with an 89-mph slider and escaped the always-dangerous Freddie Freeman, who harmlessly flied out to left on another slider. Next up, however, was the powerful Ozuna, and Diaz didn’t help himself by immediately falling behind 3-and-0 in the count.

Still, he battled back. He got a called strike with a 98-mph fastball, then a weak swing-through on a 90-mph slider. Thinking back to Friday, when he froze Ozuna with a fastball in the same situation, Diaz again went with a 97-mph heater, but he left the pitch up in a spot where Ozuna could hammer it.

“They knew my slider was biting and they would lay off,” Diaz said. “What I was trying to do was the same thing I did [Friday]. But that’s what sometimes will happen with a closer, so I just have to tip my cap.”

We get that part. But with Diaz, it’s rarely a bloop single or seeing-eye grounder through a hole. For some reason, he just dumps the whole can of lighter fluid to create one massive explosion.

That’s what makes these failures particularly crushing. At the most critical moments is when he’s at his most flammable. That’s a terrible quality for a closer, even as the Mets try to stay positive.

“I’m not concerned,” Rojas said. “It’s just one outing.”

Let’s face it. The Mets can’t afford many more.

Rojas liked the fact that Diaz was “calm” when they talked in the dugout immediately afterward.

We doubt the same could be said for all the Mets fans watching on TV. Diaz should be glad they weren’t allowed inside Citi Field.

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