03/25/07 10:00 AM ET
Garza learning how to be patient
After whirlwind 2006, young pitcher maintaining focus
By Kelly Thesier / MLB.com
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
"He did a wonderful job under tough circumstances," general manager Terry Ryan said. "I put him in a tough spot, a young kid like that. It was difficult, but he responded. And he's none the worse for wear now. You don't see him backing off at all -- he wants to make this club."Where Garza now finds himself is as unlikely a spot as any, considering where he was a year ago. Just one year after being a fluke callup to camp because of the World Baseball Classic taking away many of the Twins pitchers, Garza has placed himself squarely in the mix for the team's fifth starter. "Matt's got the makeup, he's got arm strength, he's got athleticism and he's got pitches," Ryan said. "He's got desire, work ethic and a lot of things that the good ones have. Now it's just a matter of repetition, consistency and making sure that he doesn't fall in love with his power stuff. He has to pitch, just like anybody. He can't get away just throwing hard." Despite all the warnings from the coaching staff stressing to Garza the need for him to pitch with more than just a fastball, it was something that the pitcher did not do once he joined the club. Garza said he has long known that eventually he would have to mix in his other arsenal of pitches, but power has long been what he's had to rely on, and since it worked, he kept using it. "When I played in college, [I think] my defense [was] second in the country in errors," he said. "So I was more of an 'I got to punch 'em out, pop 'em out' guy, because if I got the ball on the ground, it was, like, 50-50 that we'd get an out. Coming here, I had to try to pitch to contact. I was able to get a lot of outs really fast. But I've also got the extra gear in my back pocket so I can throw it past them if I need it, and that's what I tried to do." As Garza went along in the Minors, it became more and more tempting to just rely on the fastball due to the success he was having, and it led to outings that read similar to this: 100 pitches, 92 fastballs. The stats were enough to make pitching coach Rick Anderson take a double-take at the reports he'd seen. He knew that Garza wouldn't be able to get by on that amount of fastballs once he hit the big-league level, and tried to relay the message to the young pitcher. "If you look at Justin Verlander of the Tigers, he's a young kid that has power stuff and he uses that fastball effectively, but mixes in the rest, too," Anderson said. "That's what Matt has to do. Hopefully, he stepped back and learned from it last year." Garza credited Brad Radke's performance during the team's late-season push as one of his wakeup calls. Garza admitted that he was awed by what Radke was able to do, considering the kind of pain the veteran was in and that his fastball was touching just around 84 mph at times during his final starts. "Even throwing 82 or 84 mph, he was not just striking people out but freezing them," Garza said. "And I'm up here hitting 94, 95 mph, and I'm getting lit up. So I took that into the offseason, that train of thought. My mentality when I got back on the mound was spotting everything. But unlike last year, when I felt I was nibbling a bit, I also still want to have my aggressive mentality." This spring Garza still hasn't quite yet had the opportunity to show the club those exact changes. That's because he was set back a little by some soreness in his neck that kept him off the mound for nearly a week and slowed his progress. And those troubles are part of the reason that Garza is already starting to learn the importance of patience so far this spring. "Even in his first couple of outings, he was feeling it," Anderson said of Garza's neck problems. "So we had to back him off a little bit. We didn't really see the real Garza because of it." Not being able to see the real Garza this spring has potentially hindered his chances at being in the rotation, considering what a cutthroat race it's become to earn a starting spot.
Still, it's clear that if Garza doesn't earn a roster spot, he will be among the first on the list to be called up.But while patience has been on the list of things for the pitcher to learn, it doesn't mean that he is going to settle for waiting for a rotation spot. He'd rather just get up and earn it. And considering his 1.00 ERA through nine innings of work this spring, it appears he is making a strong case. "They say there is a spot open, so I'm pitching my [behind] off to get it," he said. "They said I'm not ready, but if I'm in Triple-A, I'm going to do what I did last year. So I'm coming out of the gate firing." Patience is a virtue -- at least, at certain times it is.
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.