Throughout October, we will take a look at how some former Phillies are performing in baseball's postseason.
Jake Diekman must have felt like he was staring down the barrel of a loaded shotgun Wednesday afternoon.
There he was, on the mound for the Oakland A’s, trying to get the last out in Game 2 of an American League wild-card series against the Chicago White Sox. The A’s were facing elimination. Jose Abreu, the loaded shotgun we referred to, was at the plate with the bases loaded in the top of the ninth inning and the Sox down two runs.
Abreu is a strong candidate for AL MVP. He led the league in hits (76), RBIs (60) and slugging (.617) in 2020.
Diekman was in the game only because Liam Hendriks, Oakland’s All-Star closer, couldn’t lock down the win. The Sox loaded the bases against him on a pair of two-out singles and a walk. With the season on the line, manager Bob Melvin lifted Hendriks for Diekman.
Diekman walked Yasmani Grandal and a run scored.
Up came Abreu.
On probably the most pressure-filled pitch of his career, Diekman retired the White Sox slugger on a first-pitch ground ball to second base and the A’s lived for Thursday’s deciding Game 3, which they won.
It was the first save of the season for Diekman, who is in the first year of a two-year, $7.5 million contract with the A’s. The 33-year-old lefty had a brilliant regular season, allowing just eight hits and one run in 21⅓ innings.
When I think of Diekman, a couple of things come to mind.
First, how courageous he has been. He battled ulcerative colitis early in his career, had a very serious surgical procedure to address the problem in 2017 and has made it back stronger than ever.
Second, I think back to spring training 2014, when he was a 27-year-old Phillies reliever coming off a couple of nice seasons.
Seven years earlier, Diekman had been a 30th-round draft pick of the Phillies. He was lanky and raw. He had some power in his arm, but hitters got a good look at the ball because of his straight over-the-top delivery. In 2008, he pitched to an ERA over 5.00 as a starter in Single A. Things weren’t going much better in 2009 and Diekman was probably on his way to being released at the end of the season.
Enter Bob Milacki, then the pitching coach for the Phillies’ South Atlantic League affiliate in Lakewood, New Jersey.
Milacki pitched for eight seasons in the majors, mostly with Baltimore, and coached in the Phillies system from 2009-14 before moving on to the Washington and Milwaukee systems. In the summer of 2009, he got a little creative one day in the bullpen and suggested that Diekman try throwing sidearm. The pitcher was put on the disabled list so he could practice the new delivery.
“I got put on the phantom disabled list to work on it,” Diekman said in 2014. “It was the worst experience of my life. Shin contusion. I had to fake being hurt for two weeks and it sucked.”
Turns out the worst experience of Diekman’s life changed his life. For the better. The new arm angle added deception to his delivery and velocity to his fastball. He went from the low 90s on the radar gun to the high 90s. He was moved to the bullpen and his career took off.
“I’d be home somewhere if I didn’t make the change,” he said in spring training 2014.
Diekman was eventually traded to Texas along with Cole Hamels in July 2015. He’s pitched for Arizona, Kansas City and is now in the postseason with Oakland. He helped keep the A’s season alive on Wednesday. And he remains a tribute to a creative pitching coach and the art of player development.