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Garza learning how to be patient03/25/2007 10:00 AM ET
By Kelly Thesier / MLB.com
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It's no surprise that Matt Garza has a list of goals for the 2007 season. But it's what tops that list that is quite unexpected. That's because Garza said that one of his primary focuses this year is learning patience. "I've always wanted everything fast," Garza said. "That's why I wanted to get here fast. But this game is a game of patience. You can't sit back and just let things happen, but you can't try to rush them either. You need a little bit of patience." Patience certainly is a new concept to Garza, as he didn't need much of it in 2006. Rising from Class A Fort Myers to the big leagues in just his first full professional season, Garza clearly didn't follow the typical journey to becoming a Major Leaguer. With trips to Double-A New Britain and Triple-A Rochester in the middle of his rapid ascension, Garza quickly became the talk of the entire organization as he put together a combined 14-4 record at the three Minor League levels, with a 1.99 ERA and 154 strikeouts. Yet things didn't come so easy when it came time to hit the big stage. Despite his instant success at almost every level in the Minors, Garza found his share of troubles when he arrived in Minnesota, going 3-6 with a 5.76 ERA in 10 appearances (nine starts). Fatigue became a big factor for Garza after he was called up in August, although the then-22-year-old hesitated to admit it at the time. The opportunity to get a shot in the big leagues was more than he was willing to give up, even though his arm was tired before he ever made his Major League debut. "I hit that wall pretty quick last year, I'll tell you that," he said. "Shoot, it was pedal to the metal to try to get to the league, and when I got there, it was a sense of accomplishment. The first couple of starts, I ran off adrenaline, but then the last couple of starts, I was gassed." By the end of the year, Garza had pitched 185 2/3 innings. Mechanically, things changed in his delivery because of the fatigue, and he felt that he wasn't able to live up to the expectations he had for himself and that fans had placed upon him in regard to his performance in the Majors. It clearly took a toll on the pitcher, who said that he felt disappointed in the way he finished his remarkable first season. But that wasn't the way the Twins' front office viewed his performance.
"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.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.