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New Mariners closer Edwin Diaz is bringing the heat

The Mariners' Edwin Diaz has made a splash in his time as Seattle's closer. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

The baseball version of a rite of passage for new Seattle Mariners closer Edwin Diaz came in the form of a meeting with the best hitter in baseball, David Ortiz, in the ninth inning Wednesday night in Seattle. Diaz had one previous encounter with Ortiz, and in that one -- after he threw two pitches not close to the strike zone -- the decision was made for Diaz to walk the Red Sox star, even with no one on base.

But this time, with the cushion of a three-run lead, and no one on base, Diaz had the go-ahead to let it fly.

The first pitch was a 97 mph fastball, just above the knees, that Ortiz let it go for a strike. The second had a little more on it -- 99 and just off the outside corner. Ortiz took a late hack and fouled it back. On 0-2, Diaz did what his coaches have been telling him to do in favorable counts: elevate. Diaz reared back and fired a 100 mph heater. Ortiz had no chance. He swung and missed, looking like The Whammer whiffing against Roy Hobbs in "The Natural."

“He’s got a good fastball,” said Ortiz as he walked out of the locker room with his son after the Mariners' 3-1 victory. “A good fastball.”

Diaz is the game’s newest and among its most impressive flamethrowers. The day before the Ortiz encounter, the right-hander picked up his first save and, as Elias Sports Bureau research showed, he reached the 50-strikeout mark in 25⅓ innings, faster than any pitcher since the mound moved to 60 feet, 6 inches in 1893.

“He’s really fun to watch, isn’t he?” Mariners pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. said by phone Thursday.

“A terrific arm,” texted one scout.

“Electric stuff,” shared another scout.

Three months ago, the Mariners’ baseball-operations people decided it was time to move Diaz from being a starter to being a reliever at Double-A Jackson.

“I was thinking it would be tough for me, because I’d never really been a reliever,” Diaz said. “But then I started learning.”

Diaz, a native of Naguabo, Puerto Rico, is familiar with unfamiliar transitions. He wanted to be an outfielder growing up and was friends with future major leaguers Carlos Correa and Jose Berrios, but while playing as a teenager, his father told him it was time to try pitching.

“We’ll talk later,” Edwin Sr. told his son, who initially protested.

Diaz was good enough to be a third-round pick in 2012. He experienced both success (he had a 1.43 ERA in 13 starts with Pulaski of the Appalachian League in 2013) and failure (a 4.57 ERA in 20 starts with Double-A Jackson in 2015) in the minors trying to win with two good pitches: a fastball he could get to 95 and a slider he threw more like a sinker. Diaz had hit 98 mph on the radar gun during the 2015 Futures Game, so the potential for him to increase velocity was there.

It turned out not to be tough. Diaz went from long tossing once a week to long tossing every day, which built his arm strength and fastball velocity, as did the adrenaline rush that came from coming in late in a game.

“I get so excited when I pitch,” Diaz said.

The results played themselves out on the field.

In his final 11 appearances at Double-A, he had an 0.66 ERA, struck out 19 in 13⅔ innings and held opponents to a .149 batting average. He hit 100 mph for the first time in his last minor league appearance. Next thing he knew, he was in the big leagues.

“We always thought there was an extra gear in there,” Jackson Generals pitching coach Andrew Lorraine said. “He just really gravitated to the role so quickly. You saw a different gear every time you were out there.

“His first time in, we were on the road against Birmingham. He came in and mowed them down -- two strikeouts and a broken bat. He said to me, ‘I really like coming in and holding the lead for my team.’ I said to our manager, ‘This is where he belongs.’”

Fate, circumstances and a nasty two-pitch combination moved Diaz through the Mariners bullpen quickly. After he was beaten by a Mookie Betts home run June 19, Diaz struck out 18 and allowed one run in his next 7⅔ innings pitched. After Luis Valbuena of the Astros tagged him for a two-run game-winner July 6, Diaz followed up with 9⅓ scoreless innings, striking out 20.

“He’s been nothing short of spectacular,” Stottlemyre said.

When closer Steve Cishek faltered and was placed on the disabled list with a hip injury earlier this week, Diaz moved into the closer’s role. He’s 3-for-3 in save opportunities after striking out Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Andrelton Simmons to preserve a win on Friday night.

In his final game as a setup man, Diaz wowed on Sunday Night Baseball against the Cubs.

“Especially for the righties, it’s an uncomfortable feeling [batting against him],” Aaron Boone said during the ESPN broadcast. “[His delivery] is a lot of arms and legs, and he kind of slings it at you.”

Added Jessica Mendoza: “It’s got that late life, too. A couple of the [fastballs] out of the zone look like they have that rise to them. It has late action, on top of being 99 to 100.”

In his first 27 games, Diaz has thrown 35fastballs that hit 100 mph on TV radar guns, sixth most in the majors. Diaz has the second-most movement on his pitches that touch that high a velocity per PITCHf/x, trailing only his teammate, starter James Paxton.

“He has some late fade, and he has some deception in his delivery,” Stottlemyre said. “On a night when he’s throwing 95 to 96, it plays like its 100. On the night’s where he’s throwing 100, it’s gotta be like 110.”

It’s not just the fastball; his slider has played a big role, too. The Mariners took a look at how Diaz threw it and tinkered, changing his grip so his fingers were no longer on the right side of the ball. They also moved his arm slot to create a look in which the ball came out of his hand from the same spot whether it was the fastball or slider. Of the first 79 sliders, opposing hitters have swung at, they’ve missed 49 (62 percent) of them. Opposing hitters are 6-for-48 with 33 strikeouts in at-bats ending with a Diaz slider.

“I’m not a hitter, but I’ve watched a lot of film,” Stottlemyre said, “and when guys are swinging at the slider, they’re [thinking they’re] swinging at the fastball.”

Diaz is not yet a finished product. His fastball, when not elevated, is hittable. (His 28 percent miss rate with the pitch is good; his .323 opponents’ batting average is not.) He’s also trying to find a way to integrate a changeup to give himself another option when his other pitches don’t feel right.

And there’s another rite of passage to go through: The baseball world hasn’t seen how he’ll fare after blowing a lead in the ninth inning as opposed to giving one up in the seventh or eighth.

“You gotta be the man out there and know you’re the man,” Lorraine said. “There will be bumps along the way, but I think he’s prepared to go from here."