BRADENTON -- JaCoby Jones' promotion to Double A Altoona -- and ensuing trade to the Tigers -- left a major hole in the middle of the Bradenton Marauders' lineup.
The shortstop was the club's leading home-run hitter and as a result he led the team in RBI. Michael Ryan knew the loss of offense would hurt, but he also knew they were getting an upgrade in the field.
Chris Diaz, who had previously been used as a utility infielder, has now started 21 consecutive games at shortstop, and Ryan has calculated him as having saved 48 runs.
"The way he's been playing shortstop has turned us around, to be honest with you," the manager said.
During this five-game homestand, which concluded Monday with a 5-0 win against the Mets, his bat has come along, too. He went 3-for-3 to open a three-game series against the Stone Crabs on Thursday, scored two runs and drove in another in a loss to St. Lucie on Sunday, and on Monday he triggered another rally for Bradenton. A second-inning walk -- one of three times he reached safely -- started the Marauders (63-57, 31-19) on their way to an early four-run lead.
Diaz keyed all three of Bradenton's run-scoring rallies Sunday and when came to the plate for his first at-bat against starting pitcher Marcos Molina, Reese McGuire had already put the Pirates' Class A Advanced affiliate ahead 2-0 with a two-run single. With Jin-De Jhang getting a day off and Harold Ramirez filling in as the designated hitter, Diaz batted eighth and outfielder Jeff Roy took his typical No. 9 spot.
"I feel like I've been putting up good at-bats all year," Diaz said. "Some balls are starting to fall right now."
Roy followed Diaz's walk with a perfect drag bunt for a hit. The lineup turned over and outfielder Justin Maffei chopped another infield single to third baseman Jhoan Urena to load the bases.
Now came the two runs. They both came on one swing by Austin Meadows that sent the ball bouncing harmlessly to the second baseman. Jeff McNeil threw to shortstop Amed Rosario for one out and Meadows beat out the turn at first base. Diaz was already home and Roy was heading toward the plate, too. He slid around a tag and reached back to touch home.
The Marauders hit three balls for a total of roughly 200 feet against Molina (1-5) and scored two runs to go ahead 4-0.
The win, however, only keeps Bradenton within three games of the Cardinals. Palm Beach beat the Hammerheads 7-0 on Monday at Roger Dean Stadium.
Tyler Eppler eliminated the toss-up plays altogether when the Mets (60-60, 25-25) were at the plate. The Marauders' starting pitcher delivered his longest outing of the year, holding the New York's FSL team to two hits in seven shutout innings. Eppler (5-1) got away with four consecutive air outs to start the game and only six more batters the rest of the way hit balls out of the infield against the righty, who also struck out five for his second highest total of the year.
"My last two outings I've kind of switched my mindset," Eppler said. "Stop trying to figure out what I'm doing wrong, and just competing and using what I have to get outs."
For four innings, even Diaz was silent behind him. The 24-year-old didn't have a ball hit his way until there was one out and a runner on first in fifth inning. Finally, shortstop Amed Rosario knocked a ball to Diaz's right, sending him back toward the outfield grass deep in the hole. He snagged the ball in his glove and, with his weight carrying him toward left field, fired a laser to Steranka for the second out.
The next play was an easy groundout to third baseman Wyatt Mathisen to end one of the three innings Eppler let a runner get on base.
"He's taken some pressure off of our pitching," Ryan said of Diaz. "For him to be in this situation, to be able to play every day because he wasn't, is huge for him and to take it by the horns and produce--our organization is just raving about him."