Aledmys Diaz raises his helmet to the sky during a curtain call after his grand slam Tuesday night at Busch Stadium. (Scott Rovak/USA Today Sports)

By Rob Rains

A couple of hours before Tuesday night’s game, Aledmys Diaz stood in front of his locker in the Cardinals’ clubhouse and discussed how he was going to try to honor Jose Fernandez in every game that he played.

It had been less than 24 hours since he had mourned with Fernandez’s mother and grandmother in Miami after his friend was killed in a boating accident early Sunday. The two grew up three houses apart in their native Cuba.

“I think the best way to honor him is to come in here every day and play this game 100 percent, that’s what he would want,” Diaz said. “I want to give my team a chance to win, like he did; just remind me how fun this game is. He loved this game. He liked to compete.

“For me going forward I just have to love this game more. Every time I have the chance to put on this uniform I want to go out there and give everything for him.”

In the fourth inning, that was exactly what Diaz did.

Coming to the plate with the bases loaded, Diaz was looking for a pitch he could hit a fly ball and drive in a run. After he grounded out in the second inning, teammate Brayan Pena – another Cuban native – told him he was going to hit a home run in his next at-bat.

On a 2-1 pitch from Robert Stephenson, Diaz did – sending the ball into the seats in left field, his first grand slam, which set off a wave of emotions as he circled the bases, pointed to the sky as he crossed home plate and found himself being embraced by Yadier Molina.

Then came the curtain call from the fans at Busch Stadium, all of whom likely had no doubt there had been some divine intervention working at that moment. Diaz knew it too.

“It’s amazing, right now, the last couple of days, being with his family, to come back and hit that grand slam … you can’t explain that. I’m very grateful,” Diaz said afterward. ”I think he’s watching. Hopefully he was watching me today and will stay with everybody who loved him. It was special for everybody.”

Diaz got the baseball, given to him by the fan who caught it, and it will no doubt be a treasured keepsake, as will the memory of the grand slam, which sent the Cardinals to a 12-5 win over the Reds.

As he watched from the dugout, pitcher Adam Wainwright knew he was in the midst of a special moment.

“I felt some serious goosebumps when he hit that,” Wainwright said. “Almost got choked up; I know he was. He wanted to make some good swings for Jose. I don’t know if there was a spot all year where we needed that more than tonight.

“I didn’t want to put that pressure on him, even with my thoughts, but after he hit it, it was like watching Dee Gordon yesterday. It was a special moment.”

Manager Mike Matheny had the same reaction.

“He’s the kind of guy who can do some big things,” Matheny said.
“We’ve seen it. It was pretty amazing to watch him cross home plate, and his reaction kind of hit me, the load he’s carrying right now.

“He looked like he was doing something with a purpose. When he looked up at the sky I could tell his mind was somewhere else, but in a good place.”

Said Diaz, “You have to be a professional every time you come here and focus 100 percent on the game,” Diaz said. “It’s tough … I think I look at life different right now. Sometimes we just take things for granted, and you never know when will be the last time you will have the opportunity to come in here and play.”

Diaz and Fernandez were as close as brothers when they were growing up, In a 2014 interview with STLSportsPage.com, Diaz’s father Rigoberto talked about the relationship between the two boys.

“They used to play on the street when they were pretty young,” recalled Rigoberto Diaz. “Aledmys never played with a toy. Neither did Jose. They took baseball very seriously. They had a bat and a ball with them all the time.”

Trying to cope with Fernandez’s death has been extremely difficult for Diaz, at 26, two years older than Fernandez.

“I’m just sad for everybody,” Diaz said. “Even now I can’t believe it. It’s tough. I hope his mom and grandma can handle it.

“Every Cuban who came here and had a chance to live in this great country, where you can live in freedom and play this game, I think looks at him as the perfect example for every Cuban American to live the American dream.”

Diaz had a Cardinals jersey, with Fernandez’s name and number 16, and hung it up in the Cardinals’ dugout during the game.

“We had a friendship where we didn’t have to text every day,” he said. “When you have that type of friendship, like a brother, he knows my family and we were there for him whenever he needed it.

“When I got there yesterday, and saw his mom and grandma, I can’t describe that moment.”

What has been especially hard for Fernandez’s family and fans in Miami in dealing with his death was how much he enjoyed life, and how much fun he had playing the game.
“I think sometimes we forget how this is a game,” Diaz said.

“He wanted to have fun out there and enjoy the game.

“When you play the game like he played the game … he was an example for everybody. He opened a lot of doors for us (players from Cuba). Teams started looking more at guys from Cuba. When you grow up in Cuba and you have nothing, I think he’s an example. He came here, and he played hard every day, took nothing for granted. I think that’s his legacy.”

The two friends faced each other in only one game in their careers, on July 28 in Miami. After grounding out in the first inning, Diaz homered in the third inning.

“That’s a moment I will never forget,” Diaz said. “I talked to him two days after that and he told me ‘next year I am going to strike you out.’ It’s a shame to lose a guy like that. He meant so much to baseball.”

Diaz did not play in the Cardinals’ game Sunday night in Chicago, but he was on deck to pinch-hit in the ninth inning had Jose Martinez reached base.

“I was excited to see him hit against (Aroldis) Chapman,” Matheny said. “I thought that had magic written all over it, but unfortunately we didn’t get quite to that spot.”

Diaz returned to St. Louis Monday night and was in uniform in the dugout for the later stages of the game.

“I knew when he got back here he was going to want to play,” Matheny said. “I think you’re going to see somebody go out and play with a lot of emotion, like we saw Carlos (Martinez) pitch.”

That’s exactly what Diaz said he planned to do – and then was exactly what he did.

“I’m glad I have the chance to be in a big league clubhouse and be a part of the Cardinals, and I think I appreciate that more right now,” Diaz said. “For me, every time I go out there and perform and complete I am going to enjoy it. That’s the legacy he gave us.

“If you have a chance to put on this uniform you ought to play 100 percent every day and have fun out there and be the best teammate you can be. That’s the way I look at it right now.”

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains