Pitching with a pair of ruptured eardrums isn't recommended, but the condition had its benefits for Mariners righthander Freddy Garcia last season. "It made me a little deaf," he says, which was a blessing because there was a great deal that Garcia was better off not hearing. His ear trouble helped block out the occasional boos at Safeco Field, the criticism of talk-radio callers and hosts, and the rumors that Seattle was on the verge of trading him.
All of that unpleasantness was the result of the maddening inconsistency that has marked Garcia's career. Last season, for example, he was 5-0 with a 2.05 ERA in June, went 0-6 with a 10.03 in July and the beginning of August, then ended the season allowing only two runs in his last 27 innings. The final numbers were 12-14 and 4.51, the worst of his career and particularly disappointing for a 27-year-old pitcher with the kind of explosive fastball and biting slider that could make him a No. 1 starter.
Seattle has been waiting for Garcia to develop into an ace ever since his debut in 1999. But after a promising first three years, over which time he went 44-19 and earned two All-Star invitations, he has regressed. For the past two seasons he has followed every sizzling streak with a cold stretch, which is why the Mariners are openly lowering their expectations this year. Manager Bob Melvin has Garcia, the Opening Day starter the last three seasons, scheduled as the third man in the rotation, behind soft-tossing control artist Jamie Moyer, 41, and 25-year-old power pitcher Joel Pi�eiro, who has only two full season in the majors. "We're not trying to saddle up Freddy and have him carry us into the postseason," says pitching coach Bryan Price. "We just need him to be a significant, reliable contributor to the starting rotation."
But the Mariners are a pitching-and-defense kind of club, and it would help immeasurably if a power pitcher like Garcia could finally become a reliable stopper. Melvin and Price are no doubt hoping that the reduced pressure, the one-year contract Garcia signed in the off-season (for $6.875 million, the same salary as last season's), as well as January surgery to repair his eardrums, will help him produce a breakout year.
Garcia's ear problems began in 2002, when he ruptured one eardrum by sneezing as the Mariners' plane was landing on a road trip to Texas. The other eardrum burst on the return flight. Garcia finished out the year and elected not to have off-season surgery. During his up-and-down performance last season, however, Garcia sometimes wore earplugs when he pitched to help with his equilibrium. "He'll say it didn't affect him," Melvin says, "but I know there were times he was struggling with his ears. It only takes a small thing to make the difference between winning and losing at this level, and I don't think there's any question that some of Freddy's problems were physical."
Sometimes his problems have involved what goes on between those ears. Garcia has a reputation for getting upset over an umpire's call or a teammate's error and losing his concentration, a bad habit he is trying to break. He and the rest of the pitching staff shouldn't have to worry about too many miscues in the outfield, at least, with swift, sure-handed players like Ichiro Suzuki, Randy Winn and free-agent acquisition Raul Iba�ez, also a budding slugger who is likely to replace the aging but still dangerous DH Edgar Martinez in the cleanup spot. The Mariners might have to find another big bat somewhere to win the division, but Melvin has enough to work with to keep them in the race all season, particularly with a comeback year from Garcia, who may continue using earplugs when he pitches, "just because I feel like it," he says.
Should Garcia struggle again, the plugs will at least protect against any complaining fans who recall that Garcia had fallen so far in the Mariners' estimation that they nearly allowed him to become a free agent at the end of last season. "I'm just happy that I'm back," he says. "I know there were a lot of rumors that I wouldn't be here this year. Being a free agent at the end of the year is motivation, in a way, but mostly I want to show the Mariners that they made the right decision to keep me here."
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