Mariners' Diaz set for closer role after WBC experience

GOODYEAR, Ariz. (AP) His exhilarating World Baseball Classic experience over, Edwin Diaz got back to work Sunday in preparation to start the 2017 season as the Seattle Mariners' closer.

But the memories of the WBC and Diaz's time with Team Puerto Rico were still fresh. The young right-hander struck out nine in 5 1-3 WBC innings, earning a win and two saves.

After his two innings of clutch relief in the 11-inning semifinal win over the Netherlands, a fired-up Diaz leaped off the mound in celebration.

It's the way he wants to continue to pitch this season, feeding off emotion and displaying it, as is customary among ballplayers from Latin America.

''Unforgettable. I had the opportunity to represent Puerto Rico and play with great teammates. It gave me so much satisfaction,'' Diaz said. ''That's the way we play in Latin America, showing emotion. I think it's good for us to be real and show how we feel on the inside.''

Diaz's hair is dark again after the dyed-blonde look he and his WBC teammates sported. As unified as the team was in the tournament, he said, its spirited play brought together the island nation.

Diaz and many of his teammates returned to Puerto Rico for a parade on Thursday after the club's runner-up finish, then the just-turned 23-year-old rejoined the Mariners on Friday in Arizona.

''They celebrated us for what we gave, for being able to unite the country, and the people received us so well. We were able to spend the day with the fans over there,'' Diaz said. ''Everyone dyed their hair blonde and supported us from Day One.''

Diaz was thrilled to learn from and play with several teammates he grew up watching on television, including Yadier Molina, Carlos Beltran and Angel Pagan. He was asked if he would compete in the WBC again.

''One hundred percent, absolutely yes,'' Diaz said. ''It's a family and we feel like brothers.''

On Sunday, Diaz pitched in his first spring training game for Seattle since March 5. Facing the Cincinnati Reds, he struck out two in his lone inning of work.

''I did good work last season and I look forward to doing that again this year,'' Diaz said. ''My goal is to stay healthy and help the team get to the playoffs, first and foremost.''

The Mariners converted Diaz into a reliever after he was named the organization's top minor-league starting pitcher in 2014 and 2015. By May of last year, the switch to the bullpen had begun, and by June, Diaz was too dominant to leave at Double-A Jackson.

Diaz took over for Steve Cishek as closer last August and converted his first 11 save opportunities before ending the season with 18. He struck out 15.33 batters per nine innings, the second-best rate in the majors behind New York Yankees reliever Dellin Betances.

Cishek is coming back from hip surgery but isn't likely to pitch in April. So Diaz is set to begin the season as the Mariners' save specialist.

Manager Scott Servais said the Mariners are inclined to open the season with an eight-man bullpen, including Diaz.

''I think going through an entire season as a reliever is the next step,'' Servais said. ''Last year at this time he was a starting pitcher for us in Double-A. He hasn't done it for a full season. I don't think you'll see the six-out save out of Eddie Diaz, but there will be times, maybe in April or May, we need four outs. And certainly early, with Cishek being down and some other things. Hopefully we're winning a lot of games in April. But I will be careful with him not to do that too often. I hope he pitches a lot in April, that means that's a good thing for us.''

NOTES: DH/OF Nelson Cruz and 2B Robinson Cano are still unable to play due to illness. The two All-Stars have not appeared in a game since March 22. ... The Mariners sent four pitchers with major league experience to minor league camp: right-handers Jean Machi, Nick Hagadone, Chris Heston and Cody Martin. Heston was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma. ... Reliever Tony Zych made his first appearance of spring training Sunday, coming off of right biceps surgery last October. He pitched one inning, walked one, struck out one and allowed a hit. ... Reds OF Ryan Raburn left Sunday's game after the fourth inning with a left hip bruise.

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