PORT CHARLOTTE — Matt Garza lost his fastball somewhere during his move from Minneapolis to St. Petersburg. Oh, he could still throw it and throw it hard. He just didn’t have confidence in his best pitch. It was a result, Garza said, of the transition from one team to the other after his trade to the Tampa Bay Rays before the 2008 season.
Rays manager Joe Maddon told Garza to throw his fastball over the plate. So did Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey.
Here’s what happened when Garza finally listened: He dominated.
“I think last year I found myself, my style of pitching,” Garza said. “This year I’m just going to capitalize on what I’ve found and what I’ve developed. I still got a long ways to go. I’ve only had one full season in the big leagues. I’m a work in progress.”
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Ask the Florida Marlins. Ask the Texas Rangers. Ask the Toronto Blue Jays.
Ask the Boston Red Sox, whom Garza beat twice in the American League Championship Series, a feat that made him the youngest pitcher at age 24 to win the ALCS MVP award.
“I lost confidence in my ability to throw my fastball over the plate,” Garza said. “Here they wanted me to throw it over the plate. I was like, ‘OK.’ When I finally got that confidence back in the fastball, that’s when I think I really took off, because I would just throw my fastball and not worry about throwing any other pitch.”
Garza can dominate a lineup with his four-seam fastball, which he did against the Marlins, Rangers and Blue Jays, the latter two being complete-game shutouts. Add a two-seam fastball, a slider, a curve ball and a developing change-up, and you have a young pitcher with a big arm and the ability to work his way through any lineup in baseball.
“I got a lot of weapons to toy with,” Garza said Tuesday after making his spring debut with two innings against the Blue Jays at Charlotte Sports Park.
If he uses those weapons properly, Rays fans can expect to see more of the Garza who dominated opposing hitter this season.
“It’s difficult to maintain that level all the time, but I still believe he can get closer to that on a regular basis,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
All it would take, Maddon said, is for Garza to be more consistent in each start. Garza needs to recognize when he is in trouble and pitch his way out of it before the damage becomes too much for the Rays’ offense to overcome.
“I think he’s arriving at the point where he can make better in-game decisions or adjustments as the moment occurs,” Maddon said. “He’s moving closer to that point, and when he does do that, then you’re going to see that consistency, which is very dominant.”
Garza is still a very young pitcher. He’s 25. Last year was his first full season in the big leagues.
Yet the way he pitched in the postseason, especially against the Red Sox — 2-0, 1.38 ERA in two starts — could accelerate Garza’s learning process.
“It always can,” Maddon said. “When you get guys who’ve done something like that and they channel it properly, which I think he has, there’s no telling. There’s no telling because it’s all about confidence. You get that confidence and you feel like you really belong, and you get this feeling about you.
“You get this confidence and this calmness and knowing what to do, and believing that you’re going to do it. All that matters. It goes well beyond picking your foot up and putting it down in the right spot or you’re hand is in the right slot. I’m really curious so see that. He can really take off based on all that. There’s no question.”
Confidence is always a pitcher’s best pitch. In most case,s a pitch thrown with conviction will get better results than one thrown with some doubt.
“I have the confidence now that I can do it,” Garza said. “I know I can do it without my best stuff. It’s fun to have that feeling, knowing on any given night I can go out there and throw a one-hit shutout or a (complete-game) shutout. I’m just anxious to get the season going.”
Garza said he “found himself” as a pitcher last season when he was 11-9 with a 3.70 ERA and three complete games. Yet, he’s quick to add that he has a long way to go.
“I know I’m going to grow from last year and feed off what I did,” Garza said. “Of course, I have more confidence coming in because now I know how to pitch. It’s going to be a lot more fun for me.”