Throughout the off-season, into the first breath of spring, Matt Diaz was sort of like little Jack Horner, sitting in a corner. The 2008 season had been a virtual wipe-out for him. He had been the left-fielder at the start, and it went without notice that he had the Braves’ highest career batting average (.320). Then came the stop in Milwaukee late in May and the crash into the wall in left-field foul territory, and there his season took a harsh, bruising turn
In his two seasons with the Braves, Diaz had hit .327 and .338, with a modest number of home runs and RBI, mainly as the starting left-fielder. Came the injury, a shattered shoulder and a constant series of visits to the medics, and Diaz lost his place in the mind of the fans. Throughout the winter, when the outfield became a sports page topic, it read as if left-field was barren territory. That Diaz was a blurred name of the past, if even considered at all.
Diaz had come to the Braves from Kansas City in exchange for Ricardo Rodriguez, a pitcher with a fractured past and no future. The first thing about Diaz was his name — it was pronounced “Dye-az,” not the generally Latino “Dee-az.”
“My grandfather did come over from Barcelona, and he and my father used their own pronunciation,” Matt said. His father is a non-denominational minister in Lakeland, Fla., where Matt grew up. He played on two College World Series teams at Florida State, and was signed by Tampa Bay.
Diaz had developed as a somewhat surprise to the Braves. “He gives you a good bat off the bench,” Bobby Cox said. “He is a man with an attitude — a good one.”
“What happened last year was that I turned a six-week injury into a lost season,” he said. He was standing by the team bus waiting for the day trip to Bradenton, for a game with the Pirates. (Bradenton, ah, a name richly familiar in the mind of the Braves, who trained there in their glory days at Milwaukee.) “I hadn’t done my rehab the right way and it never healed properly.”
Which, probably, accounted for some of the off-season indifference to his status. Did that bother him? “No, no, I’m in the major leagues. I’ll never complain. I’m not worrying about playing time. I’m just going to do my best,” which was rather impressive those first two seasons.
Now that signing Garret Anderson is done, and it appears he’ll be doing part-time duty, the Diaz patience comes through again. “Platooning doesn’t bother me,” he said. “I’m the kind of guy who looks at a base on balls as a victory, not a tie. I’m in the major leagues. What’s better than that.”
So the team that muddled through the ‘08 season on a makeshift outfield now finds itself handsomely stocked, especially with Brandon Jones offering power (to go with the “new” Jeff Francoeur, but as much as anything else, the certainty of a Matt Diaz back at full strength and an attitude any manager could love.