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Gar-gantuan impression02/22/2008 4:27 PM ET
By Dawn Klemish / Special to MLB.com
ST. PETERSBURG -- Forgive Matt Garza if he's not overwhelmed these days with the expectations. The 24-year-old has packed more action into his first year of baseball than some will see in their career. So pardon the former Twin when, upon hearing the Rays anticipate that he'll be the No. 3 starter this season, he didn't even bat an eyelash.
"For what?" Garza said. "I had more pressure pitching behind [Johan] Santana. Last year, he struck out 17 of the Rangers, and I had to follow that up?"
For Garza, joining the Rays squad may have even been a breath of fresh air. The right-hander was the 25th overall pick in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft, and he skyrocketed through the Twins' Minor League ranks. Garza began the '06 season at Class A Fort Myers, and then breezed through Double-A New Britain and Triple-A Rochester before finishing up a whirlwind season with an early-August promotion to the Twins.
Garza started 15 games for Minnesota in 2007, and his 3.69 ERA was more than two full points lower than a year before, but still he was enlisted in a daily battle for the fifth starter's spot and following names such as Santana and Carlos Silva. The Twins tended to lean toward experience rather than youth, he said, which only compounded the problem.
Enter Tampa Bay's clubhouse, where youth reigns supreme.
"The best thing about this is that there's absolutely no pressure," Garza said. "I've got the No. 3 job, I know when I'm toeing it up and all I have to worry about is getting ready. Last year, I was kind of fighting an uphill battle. Here, I'm not fighting anything; I'm just going out there and pitching, and it's been one heck of a ride.
"It's been a blast."
Bullpen coach Bobby Ramos patted Garza on the back as Garza jogged to the mound on Friday for his first batting practice as a Ray. "Buena suerte," said Ramos, Spanish for "good luck."
As it turned out, Garza didn't really need it.
It probably came as no surprise on Friday afternoon when what was scheduled to be BP looked a little bit more like a pitching exhibition starring Garza. One after another, hitters took their cuts in the cage, and one after another, they came up empty but for a random squib.
"He's pretty good," team MVP Carlos Pena said after he fanned to end his turn. "Real good."
Rays manager Joe Maddon quipped that he thought the closer Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman drew to the backstop on Field No. 3, the harder Garza threw, until even his catcher was stunned.
"That was the first time that I actually caught him today, and I was a little caught off-guard," Shawn Riggans admitted. "I know he has good stuff, but this was really polished.
"Even the hitters were like, 'Wow.' ... Garza came in and he was getting after it."
Maddon, always a champion of spirit, seemed taken in by Garza's infectious presence on the mound.
"I saw very little of him in the past, but I've heard about it," Maddon said. "I've seen it now and it's definitely legit.
"[Hitter Evan] Longoria looked back and said, 'Andrew, could you please move away from the back of the cage? He's throwing harder and harder the closer you get.'"
Garza's face remained stony throughout the escapade, breaking form just long enough to offer random encouragement to his teammates as they foundered at the plate. Garza didn't need to say or do much, his pitching spoke for itself. Pena, who homered 46 times in 2007, again walked away from the plate and shook his head.
"That's a great pitch right there," Pena commented.
Because he's a new face, Garza has flitted from group to group lately, introducing himself around the clubhouse, and he's got a friend in former Twins shortstop Jason Bartlett. But he's still intent on feeling out the rest of the team. Garza said when he was initially traded, all he knew was that the Rays were "young, they put up a lot of runs and they weren't too good."
Now Garza chuckles. The vibe around the Naimoli Complex is a great one, he said.
"It's always good to come into a place with this much energy running around," Garza added. "Good stuff happens if you stay positive, and this place is real positive.
"I came from a team where camp was always like this -- real loose, real fun, like every year they're ready to compete. And now these guys have that chance, and we're ready to compete. It's a good feeling."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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