Matt Garza always had the big fastball and nasty slider to go along with his menacing glare that welcomes hitters to home plate. He was never short on intimidation. It was that same big repertoire and bigger confidence that made Garza a first-round pick when the Minnesota Twins selected the right-hander out of Fresno State with the 25th overall pick in the 2005 draft. Garza had ‘fast-track’ ability and a one-track mind. Nothing was going to stop him from getting to the big leagues.
But looking back, there was no way to predict Garza would be where he is now. Sure, Garza was treated like any other big time pick. He got the big bonus and was wearing a Twins uniform the year after he was drafted. At 22 years old, the Twins thought he was capable of holding down a spot in their starting rotation. He was capable, but he wasn’t ready. Maturity knows no particular age.
After making 15 starts for the Twins in 2007, Garza showed enough promise to be considered among baseball’s best young pitchers. The Twins knew the talent they had, they were aware of the competitor bubbling inside, but would any of that translate into consistent production? They weren’t so sure. Raw talent is only half the answer.
Due to his brief cameo in Minnesota, Garza, the 2006 USA Today Minor League Player of the Year, had been on full display and his trade value spiked. The Tampa Bay Rays had their own top draft pick whom they weren’t so sure about in Delmon Young, and they saw something they liked in Garza. In November 2007, the deal was made that would serve as the kick-start to Garza’s promising career.
Young came to Minnesota and Garza went to Tampa, both as the centerpieces of their respective packages. Garza didn’t quite understand why he was being dealt only two years after being drafted, but he didn’t have to know why. He knew he would have an opportunity in Tampa that wouldn’t necessarily be available in Minnesota. Garza would have the opportunity to spend a full season in the big leagues and pitch in a starting rotation from Opening Day.
The Rays were the shock of the baseball world in 2008, thanks to their improbable run to the World Series, but there were many developing stories on the roster, none more intriguing than Garza. If you look at Garza’s full season, it seems pretty solid. Garza went 11-9 with a 3.70 ERA, struck out 128 in 184 2/3 innings, and yielded just fewer than three walks per nine innings.
But life wasn’t about the numbers for Garza in 2008, it was about the daily grind, handling professional responsibilities, and learning how to act like a professional athlete. As a starting pitcher, Garza’s mentality and personality used to work against him. He attacked the game like a subway, steamrolling through the dark, only accompanied by shutters and shrieks. Garza took the mound on adrenaline and survived on pure emotion.
But that wasn’t getting him any closer to big league superstardom. At some point, if he wanted to take full advantage of his incredible gifts, Garza would have to make the leap from hyperventilating maniac to focused assassin on the mound. There were times at the beginning of the season where you would look at Garza on the mound and just wait for the smoke to ooze from his ears and nostrils. He physically looked that wired. But two monumental things happened last season that turned Garza around and allowed him to become the dominant pitcher the Rays were waiting for, and it all began in the summer heat of Texas.
On June 8, Garza took the ball and went after the Texas Rangers in Arlington. Up until that night, we were exposed to the same Matt Garza. Strikeout a bunch of guys, walk a handful, and possibly unravel in the one bad inning. His 4.21 ERA was mundane and Garza was allowing almost a hit per inning. Those numbers shouldn’t accustom a guy of Garza’s caliber.
After the number nine hitter, German Duran, hit a two-run home run to make it 3-0 Texas in the fourth inning, Rays catcher Dioner Navarro decided he had had enough. He had enough of Garza’s high wire act. He had enough of Garza’s propensity to implode. And, most of all, he had enough of Garza’s emotions and poor body language. Navarro went to the mound and immediately got into a shouting match with Garza, animated to the point that pitching coach Jim Hickey had to go out to the mound to settle things down.
After the inning ended, the argument carried on in the dugout until Navarro finally pushed Garza, prompting a brawl between the two that spilled into the dugout runway. After the game, Navarro stood firm and answered all the questions. He called out Garza and said that he needed to grow up and take responsibility for his performance and quit trying to look for excuses.
It was a surprise to hear those words come out of the mouth of a guy who was also unproven at the time, but that’s what Navarro did. He became the leader on the field on that day in Texas. To Garza’s credit, he took some time to analyze what happened and reflect on himself before ultimately admitting that Navarro was absolutely right. Garza was tired of succumbing to his emotions and he vowed to be a different person and better competitor. After that scuffle with Navarro, Garza rode a 3.37 ERA the rest of the way.
But it wasn’t only a couple of right hooks to the jaw that was needed to shake Garza loose. He knew that he had to learn the mental side of competition so that he could be at his peak performance in the most stressful of situations. The Rays flew in Ken Ravizza, a renowned sports psychologist who has worked with many professional and amateur athletes, to retool Garza’s mind and teach him how to have full control during competition.
Ravizza’s message to Garza was simple: don’t change the player you are, just learn how to better handle the player you are. Ravizza had multiple face-to-face meetings with Garza and worked with him on channeling his emotions and playing the game one pitch at a time, common clichés that Ravizza believes are true at the core.
Ravizza provided Garza with self-evaluation techniques, including a checklist of ways to identify when his emotions are boiling and when they are about to get the best of him. Ravizza told Garza not to try to avoid these emotions and this level adrenaline, because in large part, that’s what makes him so good in the first place. What’s important is that an athlete understands how to deal with the emotions when they begin to creep to the surface.
It wasn’t an epiphany or some over-night sensation story for Garza. It was gradual change and the ability to get better, mentally and physically, after each start. When Garza took the mound against the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, you could see his newfound attitude at work. Right before Garza goes into his delivery, a deep breath releases any tension in his body. With a sense of calm overtaking his mind before the pitch, Garza is able to start his motion and simply execute the pitch.
It was no mystery that Garza became a staple of Tampa Bay’s rotation in the second half. He just needed a productive mental approach to go along with elite talent. As the Rays’ pitchers and catchers are only a few weeks from reporting to spring training, manager Joe Maddon has bigger things in mind for Garza in 2009. James Shields and Scott Kazmir will still be at the top of the rotation, but there will be Garza, the third guy, ready to become the true ace of the rotation.
All of the talk will be about the Rays defending their American League East crown and their AL title, how much better the Rays offense will be with a full season of Evan Longoria, and the impact rookie David Price will have on the Rays starting rotation. Lost in the shuffle will be Garza, the guy who is only months removed from being that 6’4” stick of dynamite ready to pop. But that’s just fine for Garza. He knows how far he has come and the career that he is just beginning.
For the first time in his life, Garza will step up on the mound and there won’t be anything stopping him. The flailing arms and huffs and puffs have vanished, but that’s what’s supposed to happen when a champion grows up. The only thing that has changed is the man; the fastball still sizzles and the slider is still toxic. Don’t worry, you’ll still notice Matt Garza when you see him. That glare isn’t going anywhere.
Teddy Mitrosilis is a sophomore pitcher and journalism major at Long Beach City College. You can reach him by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.