Image credit: Elias Diaz (Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
SEATTLE – Three and a half years ago, Elias Diaz was non-tendered by the second-worst team in the National League.
Elias signed with the Pirates out of Venezuela in 2008 and spent seven years climbing their system. He made his major league debut in 2015, didn’t get even semi-regular playing time until 2017 and played 100 games for the first time in 2019. Known as a talented defender with a light bat, he hit .241 with two home runs that season and was not tendered a contract by the 69-93 Pirates. When they let him go, he had a career .656 OPS over five partial seasons.
Nothing in Diaz’s performance or pedigree suggested an all-star berth lied in his future. And yet, on Tuesday evening, he not only stood among baseball’s best players as the Rockies’ lone all-star representative, but delivered the game’s signature moment.
Diaz hit the go-ahead two-run home run in the eighth inning to lift the National League to a 3-2 win over the American League in the 93rd All-Star Game at T-Mobile Park. His home run snapped a nine-game losing streak for the NL and gave the Senior Circuit its first All-Star Game victory since 2012. Diaz, the unlikeliest of all-stars, was named MVP.
“I mean, it’s incredible,” Diaz said through interpreter Danny Sanchez. “Obviously when that happened, when (the Pirates) let me go, I didn’t allow myself to feel defeated. I maintained my confidence and stayed positive. And now I’m just happy to be here and happy to have this experience.”
Diaz’s homer capped his multi-year revival as a player. Signed to a minor league deal by the Rockies before the 2020 season, he worked his way up to the starting job and hit a career-high 18 home runs in 2021. That earned him a three-year, $14.5 million contract extension and a secure role for the first time in his career. After a dip in production last season, he bounced back this year and hit a career-high .277 with nine home runs and 45 RBIs through the break, making him one of the most productive catchers in baseball.
In case there was any doubt about his all-star worthiness, Diaz entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning and, in his first career all-star at-bat, launched the go-ahead two-run home run to left field off Orioles closer Felix Bautista.
“I talked to (Rockies manager) Bud Black about Elias and he said, ‘This is one of the finest people you’ll ever meet. He’s complete team player, do anything you want,’ ” National League manager Rob Thomson said. “ ’If he doesn’t play, that’s fine. If he does play, it’d be great. He’s just happy to be there.’ And he was exactly right. As soon Diaz walked in the clubhouse and I met him, he said, ‘I’ll do anything you want. If I play, I play. I’m just so happy to be here.’ So for him to do that. It’s fantastic.”
Diaz was the first Rockies catcher to be an all-star and now is the first Rockies player to win an All-Star Game MVP award. For a franchise whose history includes perennial all-stars like Larry Walker, Todd Helton, Matt Holliday, Troy Tulowitzki and Nolan Arenado, among others, it’s nothing short of a stunning and remarkable achievement.
“Man, it’s something that I never could have imagined,” Diaz said. “Obviously I was aware that I was the first Rockies catcher to be an all-star and, you know, I took a lot of pride in that. I wanted to make the Rockies proud and put my name on the map. And now history is continuing to write itself with the MVP. It’s something incredible and something that I’m really proud of.”
Diaz’s heroics held up after some late drama. Closer Craig Kimbrel entered in the bottom of the ninth for the NL and quickly retired the first two batters, but he issued back-to-back, full-count walks to Kyle Tucker and Julio Rodriguez to put the tying run on second base. With a sellout crowd of 41,759 roaring, Kimbrel dialed in and struck Jose Ramirez out swinging to lock down the save and end the NL’s losing streak.
“When we all got here we all talked about how we were gonna bring home the win,” Diaz said. “I just didn’t realize it was gonna be me to bring home the win.”
The game was a showcase of pitching and defense for most of the night, with runs hard to come by.
Close friends and fellow Cubans Adolis Garcia and Randy Arozarena made back-to-back highlight-reel catches to start the game for the American League and set the tone early. Garcia made a leaping catch at the wall in right field to rob Ronald Acuña of extra bases on the first pitch of the game and Arozarena slammed hard mid-air into the wall in left field after racing to grab Freddie Freeman’s drive.
Garcia added another leaping catch at the wall in right-center to rob Sean Murphy of extra bases in the fourth, and NL third baseman Austin Riley made a highlight reel-play when he charged in on a slow roller and made a throw on the run that first baseman Matt Olson scooped out of the dirt to rob Josh Jung of an infield hit in the fifth.
Yandy Diaz opened the scoring for the AL with a solo home run in the second, but the NL quickly tied it up on Luis Arraez’s RBI single in the fourth. Bo Bichette put the AL back in front with a sacrifice fly in the sixth.
That’s where the score remained until Diaz’s blast in the eighth. On the same field as Acuña, Freeman, Mookie Betts, Shohei Ohtani, Juan Soto and countless other stars who represent the faces of the game, it was the 32-year-old, first-time all-star who shined brightest of all.
“I honestly can’t believe that my name is going to be next to some of those names (of previous MVP winners),” Diaz said. “Obviously I’ve worked really hard to get to where I am, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be in this position.”