Aledmys Diaz capitalized on a storybook opportunity Tuesday.
The St. Louis Cardinals rookie shortstop, still in deep mourning over the sudden and tragic death of Miami Marlins pitcher and fellow Cuban Jose Fernandez, drilled a fourth-inning grand slam in his first game since Fernandez was killed in a boating accident Sunday morning.
Diaz’s homer against right-hander Robert Stephenson put the Cardinals ahead 5-2 en route to a convincing 12-5 victory over the Cincinnati Reds at Busch Stadium.
“It means a lot for me,” Diaz said. “(Fernandez’s) family has been through a lot of things the last couple of days. Hopefully, this helps a little bit.
“That moment, I was focusing on hitting a fly ball. I was looking for a pitch up in the zone and put a good swing on it. It felt great. It was my first grand slam. It means a lot to me and my teammates. We’re looking for a spot in the playoffs.”
The Cardinals remained 1 1/2 games behind the New York Mets and one game behind San Francisco in the wild-card race. St. Louis has five games remaining.
St. Louis also got homers from Matt Carpenter, Jhonny Peralta, Matt Adams and Randal Grichuk.
Diaz was welcomed at home plate by Yadier Molina, Peralta and Brandon Moss, and with the applause growing louder, Diaz emerged from the dugout for a curtain call. From the top step, Diaz lifted his helmet above his head and looked to the sky.
He was like a brother to me. It’s tough, but you have to look at the way he played baseball every day. He enjoyed it. He came every day to the park to perform and compete.
St. Louis Cardinals rookie Aledmys Diaz on close friend Jose Fernandez, who died Sunday morning
“It’s amazing,” said Diaz, who on Monday attended a friends-and-family-only service for Fernandez before returning in time for a game in which he did not play. “I flew to Miami to be there with his family. To come back and hit that grand slam, you can’t explain that. I’m very grateful to hit a grand slam to help my team win.
“It was very emotional. He can’t be here anymore. It’s tough. ... I think you have to be, first of all, a professional. Every time you come here, you have to focus 100 percent on the game. He was like a brother to me. It’s tough, but you have to look at the way he played baseball every day. He enjoyed it. He came every day to the park to perform and compete.
“I think I look at life differently now. Sometimes we take it for granted. You never know when’s the last time you’ll have the opportunity to come here and play. Every time I put on the uniform, I want to enjoy and play hard.”
That moment, I was focusing on hitting a fly ball. I was looking for a pitch up in the zone and put a good swing on it. It felt great. It was my first grand slam. It means a lot to me and my teammates. We’re looking for a spot in the playoffs.
Aledmys Diaz on his fourth-inning grand slam that gave the Cardinals a 5-2 lead
Adam Wainwright (13-9), the Cardinals’ winning pitcher, said he “felt some serious goosebumps” when Diaz connected on a 2-1 fastball from Stephenson.
“I almost got choked up,” Wainwright said. “I know he was. We were all excited for him. He wanted to make some good swings for Jose, I’m sure. I don’t know if there’s a spot all year where we needed that more than we did tonight. That was huge for us.”
Wainwright said he had avoided talking to Diaz about Fernandez, knowing that Diaz was bearing a heavy load after the death of his longtime friend.
“I was battling (to not say), ‘Do it for Jose,’” Wainwright said. “I didn’t want to put that pressure on him, even with my thoughts. But after he hit it ... it was a special moment.”
Diaz, batting .301 with 17 homers and 65 RBIs in 106 games, was able to retrieve the ball, but he doesn’t know what he’s going to do with it.
“Right now, I don’t think about that,” Diaz said. “Right now, I pray for his family. Hopefully, they get through this. Hopefully, they can feel better.”
I almost got choked up. I know he was. We were all excited for him. He wanted to make some good swings for Jose, I’m sure. I don’t know if there’s a spot all year where we needed that more than we did tonight. That was huge for us.
Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright on Aledmys Diaz’s grand slam
Diaz, 24, is ready for life to return to normal, although he acknowledged that the 24-year-old Fernandez’s absence will create a void that never will be filled.
“I think right now I’m going forward,” Diaz said. “Every time I put on a uniform, I want to think of him and the way that he played baseball. He gave everything every day. That’s his legacy, for every MLB player, especially for the Cuban players. He was living the American dream. He made it.”
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, his team seemingly on fumes on offense, inserted Diaz into the lineup Tuesday and the move paid major dividends.
“He’s the kind of guy who can do big things, and we’ve seen it,” Matheny said. “I have a feeling that for the rest of the way, you’re going to see this kid playing with a lot of heart, like he has all season. He’s been so good. When he’s healthy, he has the potential to do what he did today. That was huge. That’s an understatement. It was a big deal.
“Watching him cross the plate and watching his reaction as he went through the guys (in the dugout), it really hit me how much that meant to him with some of the load he’s carrying right now. You can never understand what each person is going through when they suffer a loss like that. The game, the show, goes on. So does life. It’s a tough thing for a young player, anybody, to deal with.”