I sat down with St. Mary's College baseball coach Greg Moore to talk about the Nationals' reported signing of the Gaels' second baseman and leadoff hitter, Gio Diaz, as an undrafted free agent.
Diaz played in 13 games this past abbreviated season, hitting .396 for the Gaels, who surged to finish the year at 8-8.
"He loves to play the game," said Moore. "I know that's easy to say, but he thinks about the game all the time. He's one of those guys that studies the best in baseball. The craft for him matters. It's not about the attention, it's really about seeing how good he can be at baseball."
Diaz played mostly second and third base this season for St. Mary's, but Moore believes the Brentwood, Calif., native can play a lot of spots because of his athletic ability and glovework.
"I really think he can play in the middle of the field anywhere," Moore said. "Second base, shortstop - he runs well enough to be a center fielder, if that's what happens. But he can play both in the middle."
The 5-foot-11, 180-lb. Diaz hurt his non-throwing shoulder in the middle of the season and that started to affect his swing. But Moore said Diaz returned to full health a couple of weeks after the season was scuttled.
In the batter's box, Diaz does a real good job of finding a pitch to hit, and when he makes contact, the ball is solidly driven to the gaps. Moore said it's one of the best swings he has seen as a college coach. Moore spent six seasons at Cal State Northridge before arriving at St. Mary's one year ago.
"He's got real good barrel control," Moore said. "As good as I've seen in a long time. He handles velocity extremely well. He's so short to the ball. I think there is gap power in there. He actually gets better when the competition gets better because he stays short in the middle of the field and handles everything. He handles breaking balls extremely well, too."
So what makes Diaz stand out at the plate? His patience? His bat control? His vision? Moore believes it's all of these factors.
"This is fun to talk about. When you watch him face 94-95 mph, his takes are so quiet," Moore said. "You can tell his vision is good, to see (the pitch) out of the hand. I think some guys are gifted with that. I think his is a combination of working so hard to see a lot of pitches, but also having a gift as well."
Leadoff hitters have to be able to stay in at-bats. Moore saw Diaz work the count well. He was such a good hitter that the skipper put Diaz in the No. 3 hole at times to take advantage of that contact ability.
"I have heard pitchers tell me he's such a tough out," Moore said. "He was the toughest out we had because he would just stay in there until you gave him a pitch. Foul five pitches off until he went base hit over the second baseman's head. It just wears you down as a pitcher."
In 2019, Diaz was outstanding with his glove, allowing only three errors at his position in 49 games and adding 65 assists.
"He likes to sweat and really work," Moore said. "He's not one of those guys that gets out there for feel good ground balls. He gets out there to break a sweat, break some things down. On defense, when you watch him in the game, from second base he goes to his right really well. He can change directions to make that throw. I think that's his best skill on defense. He does it all fine, but watching him go up the middle and turn the ball back around is a lot of fun."
Then there is his makeup, a key component for the Nationals as they look to build their roster of prospects. Moore noticed how Diaz works on his game but also takes time to help his teammates get better each day.
"He's a conversational leader," Moore said. "He took one freshman in particular, right-hander Clark Candiotti, and he really taught him how to think about the game. How to focus on the details today, but also have a big-picture vision for where you want to go. That's why I know Gio is ready for pro ball. He's clear on what he wants to do. Some guys say they want it, but they allow up with the actions. He follows up and then he shares that way of thinking with young guys or guys around him. It's really a mature type of leadership in my opinion."
Diaz came back to school with more confidence for the fall season after performing well in the 2019 Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League, helping guide the Bethesda Big Train to a 30-7 record with a .309 batting average. He hit nine doubles, one triple, two homers and 37 RBIs in 43 games for Bethesda.
"(What) I saw from him coming out of Bethesda was his confidence on the bases," Moore said. "He was always a fast guy, a good baserunner, but when he got back from summer ball, he had a different air about him from what I saw on video. I think that's always good. And I love (Bethesda head coach) Sal Colangelo. I like when guys are out there."
The Gaels were a bit slow out of the gate this season, but then Moore noticed the club tightening up its defense and pitching better to get on a run before the pandemic closed off the campaign prematurely.
"I think we went 6-1 in our last seven games," Moore said. "We started to play defense at an elite level. Our fielding percentage, if you snapshotted it, we were in the top 10 in those last eight games. Same thing with pitching. We were in the top 10 in the country in how we pitched if you just took those games. I think we were 2.11 ERA and .989 fielding percentage."
One reason for the turnaround was the skill and expertise of Diaz and his teammates coming together on the field.
"We really had a team that didn't have a lot guys that had full-time experience," Moore said. "Gio was the only one, along with our center fielder. They kind of coalesced and you saw all the hard work from the fall pay off. We started playing really well."
* The University of Rhode Island announced that first baseman/outfielder Jackson Coutts has signed with the Nationals as an undrafted free agent, according to a school-issued press release. Coutts hit .451 with seven doubles, four homers and 12 RBIs in 13 games. The junior is listed at 6-foot-3, 230 lbs., out of Orono, Maine, and was named the state's Mr. Baseball in 2017.
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