JUPITER, Fla. (AP) — With two outs and a runner on first base, St. Louis shortstop Aledmys Diaz ranged left to track down Marcell Ozuna’s grounder up the middle and nonchalantly flipped it backhanded to Kolten Wong at second base to retire the Marlins in the first inning.
He looked every bit the veteran he is not – and people are taking notice.
“Last year he was a minor league player, this year he’s an All-Star,” manager Mike Matheny said.
It took a late-camp injury to incumbent shortstop Jhonny Peralta and another to Ruben Tejada for Diaz to earn a promotion to the major leagues during the first week of last season. Once he arrived in St. Louis, Diaz’s bat kept him in the lineup, even if his glove wasn’t major-league ready.
In many ways Diaz exemplified the Cardinals imbalance last year: plenty of offense often at the expense of defense. He hit .423 through April of his rookie season, but he also committed 12 errors over the first two months.
Diaz settled down after May, committing only four errors the rest of the way. His continued success at the plate earned Diaz his first All-Star selection.
“When people say the game slowed down, it’s for real,” Diaz said. “When you get to the big leagues you want to do everything perfect. Last year I put a lot of pressure on myself the first month and a half. After that I just realized that I can do the job.”
Refining those defensive skills has been a primary focus for Diaz this spring. He arrived in Jupiter three weeks before his scheduled report date to get some extra work with Wong.
“With that guy, it’s pretty easy,” Wong said. “He’s really good, really consistent at where he throws the ball, so it’s easy for me turn (a double play) and I know once I give it to him he’s going to turn the double play.”
Once camp began, Diaz spent extra time working with Cardinals infield instructor Jose Oquendo and Hall of Fame guest instructor Ozzie Smith, concentrating on the mental aspects of the position, knowing both the hitter’s and pitcher’s tendencies to better anticipate each play.
“I think last year I had a little problem with my first step, and then I had to hurry a little bit with my throws. So this year I try to have the chance to go forward and have that extra step and throw with patience to first base,” Diaz said.
The work is paying off. Diaz has yet to commit an error this spring and is hitting .269 following Thursday’s double in the Cardinals’ 5-3 victory over the Marlins.
Diaz ended last season hitting an even .300. The hand injury that robbed him of the entire month of August is completely healed.
To keep Diaz’s bat in the lineup, the Cardinals shifted Peralta to third base. Thus far, Diaz’s play hasn’t given the Cardinals any reason to reconsider the decision.
“He’s got that look to him like he belongs,” Matheny said. “He still knows there’s things he wants to work on, be better at, but I think he’s also answered that question to himself that makes him feel like he belongs.”
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