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Big year sells Diaz on baseball


© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 1, 2001

This was an important season for Bakersfield outfielder Matt Diaz. Not because he was coming off a season in which he missed more than a month with a knee injury, and not because he feels the need to hurry up the ladder and join the Rays youth movement.

It was important because it could have been his last as a pro.

Diaz was entering his third season in the Rays farm system since being drafted out of Florida State in the 17th round of the 1999 draft. Coming off a posterior cruciate ligament injury, having been married in the off-season and carrying a career .262 average despite never advancing past Class A, he was questioning his future in the game he'd played most of his life.

"This was an important year for me baseball-wise, but even more so personally," Diaz said. "I wanted to make sure this is what I wanted to do with my life. I remember sitting down and thinking, "Do I want to drag my wife through this?' "

Diaz and his wife, Leslie, decided he should do it for at least one more year and headed to Bakersfield. Leslie got a job as a cashier at a drug store to help with expenses, and Matt became one of the minors' best hitters.

Through Monday night, Diaz led the minors with 146 hits after entering the season with 157 in his career. His closest competitor is Lyle Overbay at Double-A El Paso with 139. "If you had asked me last year, I would have said there was no way I'd be leading any league in hits," he said.

Diaz points to a number of factors in his burst of proficiency.

This is his second full season hitting with a wooden bat, he has been protected virtually all season by some of the California League's best hitters (Chairon Isenia, Dan Grummitt and Nate Kaup) and, perhaps most important, he has matured mentally.

Blaze manager Charlie Montoyo told Diaz before the season the little tantrums he threw after a bad at-bat or poor night at the plate weren't going to fly.

"Before, if I went 0-for-2 one night, I'd be throwing stuff, and Charlie told me I wasn't allowed to do that anymore. He told me he'd take me out of the game if he saw me do something like that," Diaz said. "I'd chuck a bag of sunflower seeds, something like that. I was pretty much just being immature. This year, I've been better and I've come in and focused on my next at-bat."

COINCIDENCE OR NOT?: Of the three Durham players to hit the bull atop the leftfield wall at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, all have been promoted to the Rays soon thereafter.

Catcher Toby Hall was the latest, doing so the day before he was sent to Tampa Bay on July 25. Shortstops Chris Gomez and Andy Sheets were the others.

BACK AGAIN: Outfielder Jose Guillen, recalled from a rehabilitation assignment at Durham and optioned back to the Bulls on Monday, homered on the first pitch he saw.

Outfielder Norm Hutchins was optioned to Orlando to make room for Guillen.

ENDING A STREAK: Bakersfield's Julio Villalon (4-6) became the team's first starting pitcher in five games to allow fewer than five runs in a 5-1 win Sunday. He gave up one run in seven innings.

- Staff writer Kevin Kelly contributed to this report.

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