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Posted: Saturday October 25, 2008 12:31PM; Updated: Saturday October 25, 2008 12:31PM
John Donovan John Donovan >
INSIDE BASEBALL

Grown-up Matt Garza has become the Rays' not-so-secret weapon

Story Highlights

Matt Garza, 24, will start Game 3 tonight and Game 7 if necessary

The right-hander's emotions hampered his talent earlier in his career

But, with the Rays, Garza has matured into a potential No. 1 starter

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Matt Garza pitched twice in the ALCS against the Red Sox, going 13 innings in his two starts, striking out 14 and winning both games.
Matt Garza pitched twice in the ALCS against the Red Sox, going 13 innings in his two starts, striking out 14 and winning both games.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
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PHILADELPHIA -- Back in mid-January, when he first got a look at Matt Garza, it didn't take Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey very long to figure out what he had. The question then, in a little pre-spring training pitching camp, was what the heck Hickey could do with it.

Here was this kid, Garza, fresh off of a trade from the Twins, a right-hander with a fastball that made hitters' knees weak but with a mediocre resume and an attitude that was part pit bull and part ... well, part mad dog. The talent was there for anyone to see. But so, too, was the wildness, the stubbornness and a temper that too often spilled over to poison the rest of his game.

Now, some nine months later, it's clearer than ever what Hickey and the Rays have in Garza: A bona fide ace -- however reluctant he may be -- and what could turn out to be the single most important factor in Tampa Bay winning the World Series. Garza, not yet 25 years old, will start Game 3 of the Series on Saturday at Citizens Bank Park, trying to give the Rays a 2-1 edge in this best-of-seven.

And if this Series goes seven games, as many suggest it will? Garza is lined up for that start, too, and raring to go. "He wants this thing to go seven games," Hickey said the other day in St. Petersburg, Fla., not entirely joking. "I guarantee it."

The rapid maturation of Garza this season has been a major reason that the Rays are where they are. Traded from Minnesota in a package with shortstop Jason Bartlett for former first-rounder Delmon Young, Garza came to Tampa Bay trailing his talented-but-troubled reputation. In January, it was the first part of that rep that Hickey immediately recognized. "I could tell right away that he could be a big-time major league player. I mean, like a Cy Young-type contender for eight or nine years," Hickey says now. "And as his stuff started coming around, it was pretty obvious that, across the board, he had the best stuff on the staff."

As he settled into the Tampa Bay rotation, though, the other Garza emerged, a pitcher who could be completely thrown off his game when things didn't go his way, whose body language often betrayed the churning within. He'd snipe at teammates when the defense would hiccup, scream at himself for a bad pitch, practically shudder at bad breaks. His game, invariably, would suffer.

That all came to a head famously on June 8 when, in a game in Texas, catcher Dioner Navarro jumped into the face of a disgusted and angry Garza on the mound in a confrontation that spilled onto the bench. Manager Joe Maddon, who with Hickey had to separate the two combatants in a dugout tunnel, immediately pulled his starter from the game. The next day, a contrite Garza asked Maddon for help in controlling his emotions, Maddon put him in touch with a sports psychologist and the result has been a pitcher in better control of both his emotions and his game.

Three starts after that blowup, Garza threw a complete-game one-hitter against the Marlins in which he struck out 10 and walked only one. The lone hit in the game was a home run by Hanley Ramirez off an impossibly low and away slider. Amazingly, Garza stayed calm and collected after Ramirez's unlikely homer. "I've made huge strides mentally," he said at the time. "I think I would have lost it after giving up that [homer] to Hanley. I would have got [angry], threw a couple angry pitches, a couple more knocks might have come and we'd be talking a different story. I might have been out in the bottom of the seventh. But I was able to regroup."

In 19 regular-season games since the Texas incident, Garza had a 3.37 ERA, with 94 strikeouts and just 34 walks in 123 innings. Statistician Bill James has devised a means to measure the strength of any particular start, called a "game score." According to Baseball-Reference.com, Garza is the only pitcher to have two games among the Top 10 this year, and both of those came after the row in Texas; that June start against the Marlins and an August start, back in Texas, in which he threw a complete-game two-hit shutout.

Like all good pitchers, Garza has saved his best for last. After a rough start against the White Sox in an American League Division Series game, Garza pitched twice in the AL Championship Series against the Red Sox, going 13 innings in his two starts, striking out 14 and winning both games. He gave up two runs (a 1.38 ERA) against the defending World Series champs and, after going seven innings in the Game 7 clincher, was named the ALCS MVP.

Hickey continues to stress control with Garza, both of his pitches and his emotions. He gave up a home run to Boston's Dustin Pedroia in Game 7 and stalked angrily around the mound. But he settled down, kept going to his fastball and pitched the Rays into the World Series.

Garza is, first and foremost, a fastball pitcher. Earlier this year, coaches urged Garza to go with his best pitch and pound the strike zone, warning him that, as his control improved, the hits against him probably would go up. After time, they told him, the walks would stay down and the number of hits he allowed would start to drop, too. And that's pretty much what has happened.

In the second half of the season against Garza, hitters had a lower batting average and a lower on-base percentage than in the first half, while his strikeouts per nine went up and his walks per nine dropped. Garza's final numbers in the 2008 season -- he was 11-9 in 30 starts with a 3.70 ERA -- are somewhat deceptive. His improvement in the second half, his performance in the ALCS and the sheer stuff he has are why many people point to Garza as the Rays' true ace.

"This kid's done more growing than anybody on the staff," Hickey says. "He's made mechanical changes, he's made mental changes, he's made emotional changes. That being said, he also had the longest way to go."

For his part, Garza says he wants nothing to do with being called an ace.

"I'm happy where I'm at. I like the way it's set up. I like the combination we got," Garza said the other day in the Rays' clubhouse in St. Pete. "And actually, we might even have another potential ace in [rookie left-hander David] Price. That guy has phenomenal stuff. I'll be happy to take back seat to that guy. 'Take it all, buddy.'

"I don't need pub. I just want to get wins and get the team all the way we can go."

Garza, who still gets worked-up enough that he declines to talk to the media the day before he pitches (most starters don't want to talk the day of a start), may be playing it low key now about being an ace. But the truth is, after playing second string to Johan Santana in Minnesota for the past two years and after going unnoticed for much of this one, he seized the opportunity to go up against the much more heralded Boston ace, Jon Lester, in the ALCS. "I think that might be a little bit more of a smokescreen than anything else," Hickey suggests of Garza's modesty. "He may not be enthralled with all the peripheral stuff that goes with being a No. 1. But he certainly has the heart of a No. 1."

Saturday in Game 3, on the biggest stage of his career, we'll all get a chance to see how much Garza has grown up.

 
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