When former Heritage High School baseball star Gio Diaz was playing in an East Coast college summer league in 2019, he attended one Washington Nationals MLB game as a fan.
Little did he know that a year later, that same professional franchise would call to offer him a contract.
The defending World Series champion Nationals recently signed Diaz, an infielder, to a free agent contract, following the pandemic-altered five-round MLB draft.
“First and foremost, I am really excited for this next step and opportunity,” said Diaz, a 2017 Heritage graduate and St. Mary’s College baseball star. “This is part of my goal, part of my plan. It’s time to put my head down and get to work.”
Diaz, who remains at home awaiting word about where he’ll begin his professional baseball journey, hit a career .309 with 94 hits and 38 RBIs in three seasons for the Gaels, which included a gaudy .396 average, a .442 on-base percentage and a .417 slugging percentage in 13 games for St. Mary’s as a junior this past season, shortened by shelter-in-place restrictions. He struck out only two times in 53 plate appearances in 2020, finishing as the ninth toughest college hitter to strike out.
Prior to his three-year stint with St. Mary’s, he lit the diamond for Heritage, hitting .340 with 53 hits, 30 RBIs and 51 runs scored in 65 games over three seasons.
“Gio is ready for the pro ball adventure,” said St. Mary’s head coach Greg Moore, in a school-issued release. “When you’re as clear as he is, it becomes a good time. The Nationals are getting a young guy who is committed to getting better every day. I’m proud of Gio as a person and a player.”
Although the Nationals’ call was a dream come true for Diaz, it was hardly a surprise.
The rising star had been in discussions with MLB organizations leading up to the traditional 40-round draft, but he had to adjust with all other league personnel and prospective draftees when the COVID-19 pandemic sliced the draft to five rounds.
The Nationals, however, didn’t make Diaz wait long, inking him on the first day MLB franchises were allowed to sign free agents.
Nationals officials couldn’t be reached as of press time.
“I was pretty certain from what I was hearing that I was going to be drafted in those 40 rounds, but once it turned to five rounds, it became more of a thing of ‘it’s tough to be selected in those five rounds, so what’s next? What’s the next step?’” Diaz said. “Obviously that free agent opportunity arose. I set my mind to that. Thankfully, I was able to get an opportunity.”
Diaz’s success on the diamond can be traced back to his father, a former high school and Division II college baseball player, who surrounded his young son with older and talented players to emulate during his own adult Sunday league experiences.
Those players became 5-year-old Diaz’s competition, and his path in life was pretty much set from there, he said.
Diaz’s passion and talent for the game only grew when his dad later connected him with elite players, among them former pro player Ali Cepeda, son of legend Orlando Cepeda.
“That is where I started to realize this is what I have to do (to become a professional player),” Diaz said. “This was always something I wanted to do. Other people have other things on their mind, but for me I was always all in on baseball.”
Heritage baseball coach Kevin Brannan said that that passion was on full display when Diaz was at Heritage.
“The first thing that sticks out was, and still is, his work ethic,” Brannan said this week. “He would stay after practice, regardless of how good or bad he was doing. He and Kevin Milam really set the bar in that regard. And because of it, there has been a trickle-down effect, even to this year’s group. Gio will do well in pro ball because of it.”
Diaz hit .319 with an on-base percentage of .440 as a St. Mary’s freshman, following it up with a stellar sophomore campaign that saw him hit . 278 with 45 hits and 20 RBIs, in addition to finishing the year with a .344 on-base percentage and a .327 slugging percentage.
But he feels he really drew baseball scouts’ attention during that 2019 East Coast summer league stint prior to his junior season: in 43 games, he hit .317 with 51 hits, 37 RBIs, two home runs and stole a Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League-record 45 bases.
That was also when he attended the Washington Nationals game, watching from the stands.
Soon he hopes to return to the Nationals home park to take up a different perspective — from the field.
“I am super excited (to play professionally),” Diaz said. “This is what I have wanted, and I have it now. I am super excited to play every day and get paid to do what I love.”