FORT MYERS, Fla. • Cardinals lefty Jaime Garcia admitted that before taking the mound in a game for the first time since leaving it with a shoulder injury last October he felt that peppery blend of excitement and anxiety.
What he called a “jumpy” beginning to his start Tuesday against the Boston Red Sox settled into something few starts were last season – normal.
“That real game, the excitement, the adrenaline of the game – it’s kind of like when you really test it,” Garcia said. “But it went real well. After (a couple of baserunners in first inning) I did a real good job of … being able to stay locked-in and make pitches after that. I’ll take that. That’s big being able to do that in the first start. I just have to move forward.”
Garcia threw two scoreless innings in the Cardinals’ 15-4 throttling of the Red Sox at their posh mini-Fenway, jetBlue Park. Garcia allowed three hits – all of them groundballs, some harder than others – and needed 43 pitches to gather six outs in his first exhibition start of the Grapefruit League season.
When the first batter of the game smashed an infield single off Garcia’s glove and the next batter scooted a groundball single to left field, the lefty didn’t fret.
He didn’t pace the mound. He didn’t rattle.
He calmly retired the next three batters.
Not that manager Mike Matheny wanted to take tweezers to Garcia’s outing, picking through the line score for positives. Matheny was purposefully not interested in Garcia’s mannerisms or the situations he faced, feeling that perhaps all of the attention on the minutiae created some of Garcia’s major inconsistency. He’d rather let the lefty pitch.
“I’m not dissecting everything he’s doing,” Matheny insisted after the win. “I know everybody else likes to right now. I’m just watching him go out there and do his thing. He did a nice job of pitching without reading into every situation that he gets into or out of. … I made a commitment to myself not to microscope him.”
The Cardinals spent much of last season looking deep into Garcia’s concentration or Garcia’s shoulder, in equal measures. The 26-year-old lefty went 7-7 with a 3.92 ERA, though the numbers hid the erratic route he took to them. Garcia had starts where he was clearly bothered and uncomfortable on the mound. In the middle of the season, officials with the club said it wasn’t clear if he was injured or simply struggling. Three times discomfort in his shoulder removed Garcia from the rotation.
Garcia pitched two innings and allowed one run on two hits against the Washington Nationals in Game 2 of the National League division series. The pain in his shoulder, which he felt leading up to the game, became too much to throw. A tear was revealed in his shoulder, but he and the club opted for a non-surgical treatment.
The persistent trouble with his shoulder last season meant “not being able to lock it in because you’re changing things mechanically to be able to make pitches, for it not to hurt a lot,” Garcia said.
He referred to Tuesday’s outing several times as a “test.”
Through two innings against the Red Sox, Garcia was able to maintain his strength and delivery, and he showed none of the body language that hinted at his injury last season. He struck out two batters and walked one, but only after getting ahead 0-2 and then working on other pitches. Both of the strikeouts came on sliders, and of the 10 batters Garcia faced he got a first-pitch strike on nine of them. The double he allowed was a groundball down the third-base line.
In each inning he kept Boston scoreless despite have two runners on base with less than two outs.
Matheny agreed the outing reinforced his view of Garcia coming into spring training and the one that he’s been repeating since: Garcia is a normal pitcher on a normal program and Tuesday’s results were just what the club expected, normal.
“I need him to buy that, too,” Matheny said. “I’ve been consistent on this same thing with him – he’s just one of our guys. … I’m expecting him to demand greatness from himself. If you have the ability to be that good you go out there and you don’t settle for less. You bring what you’ve got every day. It’s all cliché stuff. But to me that’s the next step in his career. It’s time. It’s time to take the next step.”
Matheny and others have used the word consistency a lot to describe what they want to see in Garcia, from start to start and inning to inning. The club believes he’s showed his health. The next move is to show his reliability.
Garcia said the only discomfort in his shoulder this spring has been the normal aches and pains that come with stretching it out from pitching a bullpen to pitching live batting practice. The pain inside the shoulder has not returned. And though he felt some nervousness going into Tuesday’s game, once that grounder clipped his glove, he had his answer.
He felt what he didn’t last year – comfortable on the mound, confident.
Consistency is next.
“This is good. This is good enough. I’m excited about that,” Garcia said. “But compared to last year, this is something I can build on. Last year I was battling on, I was trying to make pitches, and I just couldn’t do it. Now I’m at a point where I can keep building.”
Roger Hensley is the assistant managing editor/sports at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He can be followed on Twitter @stlhensley