OAKLAND — Pressure? You think a 92 mph fastball on the outside corner with a huge and vocal crowd bearing down on you in a playoff game is pressure?
Try riding a raft to freedom from your native Cuba, after being caught once before, or playing winter league baseball in Venezuela, where firearms in the stands are the norm.
In this case, it was Diaz who drove a stake through the heart of the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday, hitting a pair of opposite-field solo home runs in the Rays’ 5-1 win at Rickey Henderson Field, stunning a wild-card-record crowd of 54,005 and sending Tampa Bay to a division series with the Houston Astros.
The A’s, meanwhile, dropped their MLB-record ninth straight winner-take-all playoff game and fell to 1-15 since 2000 in postseason games in which they would advance with a win.
Neither the size nor the tenor of the raucous crowd got to Diaz, who came off the 60-day injured list Sunday after suffering a hairline fracture in his left foot from a foul ball on July 22.
Diaz had not homered in a game since July 18 and was just two for his previous 24 before facing the A’s. His inclusion in the Rays’ lineup was something of a surprise.
“I don’t know if we expected that kind of performance,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “He made us look a lot smarter than we are.
“The thing that stood out the most about Yandy was how hard he hit the baseball. In the air, on the ground, wherever. He hits the ball as hard as anybody in baseball, and he does it at a consistent clip. We have not said one thing to him about hitting the ball in the air, any of that. We took the approach of ‘Let him be. Give him consistent reps … and let the player figure it out a little bit.'”
Diaz figured A’s starter Sean Manaea out five pitches into the game, driving a 92 mph offering on a 3-1 count into the seats in right-center.
In the third inning, with Tampa Bay holding a 3-0 lead, Diaz again went opposite field on the fifth pitch of the at-bat, hitting a 2-2, 91 mph pitch over the 362-foot sign to nearly the same spot as his first homer.
A hearty bat flip ensued, as did a look back to the Rays dugout as he circled the bases and chased Manaea from the game after two-plus innings.
“They kind of beat us with our game,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said.
Diaz later added a single and was 3-for-4 on the night. He entered the game batting .500 (8-for-16) with a double, two home runs and three walks when batting leadoff. It was the second multihomer game of his career, which began with the Cleveland Indians in 2017 before he was traded to Tampa Bay in December.
But about that pressure. Diaz said the crowds might have been smaller in Venezuela, but the intensity they brought for Caracas games against rival Magallanes was more than what he has felt in the big leagues.
“You can put pressure on yourself,” Diaz said. “But you have to act like this is a normal game, just another game.”