By: J.P. Antonacci
Canadian Baseball Network
The most debated question of the Toronto Blue Jays preseason – what to do with Aaron Sanchez – was settled on Monday, when the young fireballer was named the team’s fifth starter, beating out his main competitor, veteran pitcher Gavin Floyd.
Not mentioned in the fifth-starter conversation was Scott Diamond, a non-roster invitee whose final spring training appearance with the Jays came March 17 against the Canadian junior national team.
The veteran lefthander from Guelph put on a pitching clinic over two scoreless innings, striking out four and impressing upon the young Canucks how tough it is to hit a big-league breaking ball.
Though he had allowed only a single base hit in four Grapefruit League innings, Diamond was reassigned to the Blue Jays minor league camp the next day. He is slated to open the season with Triple-A Buffalo.
The demotion didn’t come as a shock. Diamond knew he would be hard-pressed to crack Toronto’s 25-man roster when assistant general manager Andrew Tinnish signed him to a minor-league deal in November.
However, he hopes he hasn’t pulled on the jersey of his childhood favourite team for the last time.
Playing for the Blue Jays “would mean everything, really,” Diamond told Canadian Baseball Network in Dunedin.
“I was cheering from afar last year, watching this team go on the run that they did in the second half, and the playoffs as well. Growing up a Toronto fan, growing up so close to the action, and just playing baseball, it was always a dream to possibly play in Toronto.
“So watching them do it, and now being in the locker room and see the guys who had that impact last year – see their tenacity and see their determination to not only get back, but improve on it – it’s something I’ve never been a part of, and it’s something I want to contribute to more than anything.”
Diamond has proven can he contribute on baseball’s biggest stage. In his breakout 2012 season with the Minnesota Twins, he won 12 games (including a complete game shutout), posted a 3.54 earned-run average, and led the league in fewest walks allowed per nine innings.
The promising hurler was pencilled in to start on Opening Day in 2013. But off-season elbow surgery derailed his progress, and led to his release the following year.
After minor-league stints with Cincinnati and Tampa Bay, he jumped at the chance at baseball redemption with Toronto.
Rebuilding the curve
Diamond’s early-season plan is to keep working on what he considers the key to a big-league comeback – his curveball.
“In 2012, my best year, it was really the pitch that pretty much set the year for me,” he said. “It was always the pitch I could rely on and get big outs with.”
As opposed to a typical 12-to-6 curveball, Diamond said his curve “has a slider feel to it.”
“It’s probably a little more slurve, but I’m trying to get as much depth out of it and hold off left-handed hitters as much as I can, leading to a fastball on the outside corner.”
Diamond isn’t a hard thrower (his fastball tops out at 88 mph), a potential handicap he uses to his advantage by having his curve resemble his fastball upon delivery.
“If I can have my curveball come out (of my hand) looking like my fastball, I think I’m going to get a lot more reaction from the hitter than if it comes out and loops off, or casts out on a different path,” he said.
He’s also not afraid to throw the curve early in the count.
“That’s a big part of my game, mixing it up for a first-pitch strike. I’m not always going to come at you with a heater.”
Diamond’s curveball can help him beguile hitters, despite his low strikeout rate. But it’s taken a while to reclaim his feel for the pitch after his surgery.
“The spin just wasn’t coming out right, and it lost a little depth. Hitters were able to pick up on it and were kinda sitting on it,” he said.
He saw encouraging signs last year – the pitch had more depth, and his release point improved.
“It finally felt like it was coming back again. It just wasn’t as consistent as I’d want it. So coming to camp this year, I just know that for me to be a successful big-league pitcher, that’s the pitch I really need to work on.”
Diamond hopes the return of his vintage curve will also improve his fastball’s effectiveness.
“It’s going to help with everything, really,” he said. “I’ve been good with getting a lot of ground balls in situations, but I definitely need to up my swing-and-miss numbers.”
He learned to throw a curveball from Mel Melehes, his pitching mentor growing up in Guelph. By the time Diamond was scouted by Dan Thompson of Team Ontario, the pitch was his secret weapon against fastball-loving high school hitters, who flailed helplessly at his hook.
“He dominated with that pitch,” said Thompson, currently director of baseball operations with the Ontario Terriers. “Scott could command the breaking ball – that’s why he had a lot of success.”
The most important baseball lesson Diamond’s former coach taught him was to trust his stuff.
“Scott became a little bit too obsessed with the velocity of his the ball fastball” Thompson said, remembering Diamond’s frustration that his fellow pitchers were throwing harder than he was, and his elation when his fastball finally hit 80 mph.
Thompson reminded the teenager that throwing strikes was more important than throwing smoke.
“He’s going to get the odd punchout, but his game is location and good pitch selection,” said Thompson. “It was when he was a high schooler too.”
The curveball was breaking Diamond’s way in Dunedin one afternoon in early March. Facing J.P. Crawford, Philadelphia’s top-rated shortstop prospect, the lefty dropped in a 77 mph curve for strike one.
Crawford fouled off strike two, and then didn’t chase a high fastball.
Diamond came back with another curve, which Crawford grounded to second base.
“We were gonna go outside, but I was definitely going to try and elevate to see if I could get him to swing under one,” Diamond said of the third-pitch fastball.
“(Then) we were able to get him out in front a little bit to get the weak ground ball.
“Getting him on the front foot, even a little buckle on the first one. I haven’t had that in a long time,” he added, smiling. “Those are the moments you enjoy about this game.”
In the next at-bat, Diamond used another first-pitch curve to get ahead of outfielder Roman Quinn.
Quinn fouled off a fastball, and just managed to check his swing on a curve in the dirt.
Diamond then got the batter to swing through an 88 mph fastball for the strikeout – just as the southpaw had planned it.
Enjoying the moment
Now in Triple-A, Diamond will continue to rebuild his pitching arsenal in hopes of being first out the door when the Blue Jays need a left-handed spot starter.
And he will keep learning about himself and the game he loves.
“In the big leagues, you always have to adapt. Because teams get to know you, and they know your stuff, it’s basically just your talent versus theirs,” he said.
“So, for me, it’s always just been to trust myself. It seems like it’s such an easy thing to do, but when you have 50,000 people cheering and everything, you just continue to remind yourself that what you’re doing is right, and what you’re trying to work on and improve on is in the right direction.
“I’m really just trying to enjoy every single moment that I’m out here, and every chance that I get to don the uniform again.”