This offseason likely would rate as the best of Jake Diekman’s career if his life was still burdened by ulcerative colitis.
But it does get better than that. For the first time in some 15 years and as a professional baseball player, Diekman has prepared for a new season without dealing with disease.
The sky would appear to be the limit for Diekman, and as a relief pitcher the limit is the ninth inning. Coincidentally, the Texas Rangers haven’t signed a closer this offseason and Diekman is the strongest internal candidate for the job.
He’d take it.
“That’s a pretty pressure-packed situation,” Diekman said. “You live and die on a tight rope. I like excitement in my life.”
He also likes recording outs, something the Rangers’ bullpen didn’t do well last season. Diekman was around for only the final month after recovering from three major operations, but the pitching he snuck in gave him confidence heading into the offseason.
Not to the point, though, where he is expecting to be the closer. The best bullpens, he said, are the ones that share the common goal of shutting down an opposing lineup whenever the relievers are asked to pitch.
“I really don’t care as long as we get the W,” Diekman said. “As long you don’t have an ego in the bullpen, everything will be fine. The second you do ... . There are seven guys down there, sometimes eight. The goal is to keep the lead no matter what.”
He did that as well as any Rangers reliever upon returning. He didn’t have a decision in 11 appearances but posted a 2.53 ERA and recorded one save. His fastball velocity was a few mph lower than what he showed in 2015 and 2016, but that was to be expected.
Diekman said that he has no concerns physically. He weighs 219 pounds, more than he ever has, and is maintaining weight and keeping on muscle. The velocity should return.
Mentally, though, he is completely at ease. After enduring ulcerative colitis for more than half his life and surviving the three surgeries to keep his career alive, he said he doesn’t have a worry in the world.
That could be a valuable asset for a closer, who must move on to the next save chance no matter how well or how poorly the previous one went.
“A year ago I was six days away from getting surgery. I was super nervous,” he said. “Now I’m not nervous at all about anything. Nothing really bothers me anymore. I feel great. I just get to live now.
“I really have nothing to worry about ever. Even when I came back, nothing really bothered me on the mound any more. I want to do the best I can possibly do, but it’s not life or death.”
Diekman received the Richard Durrett Hardest Working Man Award on Friday night at the Dr Pepper Texas Rangers Awards Dinner at Gilley’s Dallas. Elvis Andrus was honored as the Player of the Year, and Alex Claudio received the award for Pitcher of the Year.
Claudio was the Rangers’ closer to finish the season after Sam Dyson and Matt Bush couldn’t keep the job. Claudio recorded 11 saves, some of them covering more than three outs, and was the bullpen leader in appearances (70), innings (82 2/3) and ERA (2.50).
The left-hander, who is pitching this winter in Puerto Rico, doesn’t have tradition closer stuff with a fastball that usually sits only in the upper 80s, but he was awfully adept at getting outs.
Like Diekman, he said he is willing to pitch anywhere but would gladly take the ball with a game on the line.
“Of course,” Claudio said. “If they give me the chance to do it, I’d love to do it. But I know that I can pitch in any inning. For me it’s the same. I just have to do my job.”
The Rangers aren’t likely to name a closer until spring training ends. Opening Day is March 29 against the Houston Astros, and manager Jeff Banister said that Diekman could be the guy if the Rangers have a lead in the ninth inning.
“As far as the role, he is definitely a guy who is going to pitch the back portion of the games,” Banister said. “We missed him a ton. I know he was there with us at times, but just the presence, to have the availability for him to pitch for us puts a lot of those guys back in spots they are more comfortable and more adept at pitching in.”