Commentary

Jaime Garcia followed an unlikely path

Lefty has flourished in Cardinals' rotation after first being noticed in his native Mexico

Originally Published: October 4, 2011
By Amy K. Nelson | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- It was in the trainer's room this past spring when Jaime Garcia looked Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak in the eye and told him that he wanted a commitment. This simply wasn't about money and a long-term deal. This was more. It was about life, Garcia's life and that of his family. Raised between the border of Reynosa, Mexico, and McAllen, Texas, Garcia had faced myriad challenges on his path to the big leagues. Now, he wanted to make sure his family could be safe.

So the 25-year-old left-hander looked his 42-year-old boss in the eye and told him so. Within weeks, Garcia had a team-friendly four-year, $27.5 million contract with two options that could keep him in St. Louis until 2017. More importantly, he had the security to move his younger sister, Ahimee, out of Reynosa -- which like many Mexican border towns has seen a recent increase in violence and drugs -- and into a private school in Texas.

Jaime Garcia
Scott Rovak/US PresswireIn his second full season in the majors this year, Jaime Garcia was 13-7 with a 3.56 ERA in 32 starts.

"I wasn't really thinking about me, personally, or the money," Garcia said in Philadelphia on Sunday night before the Cardinals' comeback win in Game 2. "To be able to get some security and be able to help them out, it's a great feeling."

It's that same maturity, determination and focus that have put Garcia in this position as he prepares to start Game 3 in the Division Series at home on Tuesday night, looking to give the Cardinals an unlikely series lead over the powerhouse Phillies.

"He's a 22nd-rounder, and he's going to be on the mound [Tuesday night]," said Joe Almaraz, the Cardinals scout who signed Garcia. "He's about perseverance. It's in his head, he wants perfection and that's why he's there."

When it comes to facing the Phillies, Garcia has nearly achieved it. Although the sample size is small, in six games he has a 1.20 ERA against them, and in his four starts over the past two seasons Garcia has never allowed more than one earned run in any of them, and just 17 overall hits.

"I had [another player in the league] tell me recently that he's never gotten a hit off [Garcia]," St. Louis second baseman Ryan Theriot said, "and he didn't think he ever would. And that was a right-handed hitter."

Theriot said what makes Garcia's stuff so good is that he can throw his fastball three different ways: down in the zone, cutting in and sinking. "His best pitch is a fastball, and you can't say that about many starters. You can say that about relievers, but not a lot of starters."

Garcia's slider is one of the best in the game, Theriot said, a "100 percent out pitch," to lefty hitters; that, along with a developing changeup and his curveball, makes him one of the promising young pitchers in the game. But Garcia's success has largely gone under the radar. Mozeliak said it was likely due to his sharing a rotation with veteran guys, including former Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. National media attention really doesn't mean much, but how do those in the game perceive Garcia?

"People look at him as sort of an up-and-comer," Mozeliak said. "Sometimes it just takes time; he had a lot of success right out of the gate, and so adjusting and adapting to this league is something everybody has to do."

Garcia's blessed left arm is an anomaly of sorts. Garcia can thank his mother, Gloria, for that. One of 10 children, she is the only lefty in her family and passed that on to her only son. Garcia's arm was first spotted by Almaraz in a high school tournament in Texas. Pitching three years for Sharyland High School in Mission, Texas, across the border while his father, Jaime, worked in Mexico as a civil engineer, Garcia caught Almaraz's eye.

But by the time he was a junior, age limits in Texas precluded Garcia from pitching his senior year. Almaraz was working as scout for the Orioles, who took him in the 30th round of the 2004 draft. Garcia didn't sign and instead that fall dropped out of high school for a semester and pitched in the Mexican winter league. Surrounded by older, seasoned players, Garcia held his own. In the spring, he returned to Texas and fast-tracked his senior year in high school. For someone who was trying to master English, it was an incredible amount of work. There was no baseball, no working out, just school.

"It was a big deal for me because at that point I [was] still writing, learning English," Garcia said. "I didn't have a lot of time to focus on baseball, so when the Cardinals drafted me I had a lot of things going on."

Almaraz knew that Garcia was a hidden gem. When Garcia went back into the draft in 2005, Almaraz was now working with the Cardinals and persuaded the organization to draft Garcia in the 22nd round. There was one catch: Since Garcia hadn't pitched that spring and was out of shape, his contract would be for 2006. That summer, he joined Almaraz -- the short-season manager at Johnson City (Tenn.), a rookie league team -- and worked out, throwing long-toss and getting his arm into shape. While his teammates competed, Garcia's job was simply to sweat.

While there, Almaraz, who loved Garcia's fastball and his curveball when he scouted him in high school, told him he would be a big leaguer one day.

"He looked at me with that 'Are you s------- me?' look," Almaraz said. "I told him, 'You'll be there.'"

Garcia briefly was, in 2008, when he pitched 10 games, all but one out of the bullpen. But he blew out his elbow, then lost a year (2009) to Tommy John surgery. When he entered spring training in 2010, his future was unknown as the organization was cautious. Yet that spring he forced the Cardinals' hand by "dominating" the competition, Mozeliak said. Garcia morphed into one of the team's best pitchers in 2010, finishing 13-8 with a 2.70 ERA and placing fourth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting. Despite playing just three years of high school baseball and a lost year to Tommy John surgery, Garcia was the fifth starter in a big league rotation by age 23. It was quite the leap.

"Throughout the minor leagues he was always somebody who never really screamed prospect but who was on the list," Mozeliak said. "And he just kept having success. Then he had Tommy John; that sort of took him off the radar. Then last spring training he was able to make our rotation, and the rest is history."

Garcia is still a work in progress. He turned 25 in July, and sometimes he has outings in which everything just falls apart. His home splits (9-4 with a 2.55 ERA in 15 starts) are much better this year than his road splits (4-3 with a 4.61 ERA in 17 starts), one of the reasons the Cardinals held him until Game 3. Both Mozeliak and manager Tony La Russa cautioned that Garcia is still learning, but there is no doubt about their expectations.

"Once in a while he pitches a little young," La Russa said. "Most of the time he pitches like he's got everything in control. It'll be fun to watch him."

Garcia said the fast-tracking of high school, the pitching in the Mexican winter league, the conditioning in Johnson City, the Tommy John surgery, the worry of his family's safety, all of it helped him arrive at this moment.

"Going through all that stuff helped me mature a lot at such a young age," Garcia said. "When I signed, I couldn't take anything for granted. I knew what my goal was: It was get to the major leagues and stay here. I knew the window was so [small] because I was a 22nd-round [pick]. But I knew I could do it -- that was my dream. I just worked really hard and never took anything for granted."

Especially when it comes to his family, which is still split between two two countries. Garcia's older sister, Karina, and his father still live in Reynosa, while Ahimee and Gloria live in Texas. But on Tuesday night when Garcia takes the mound, Jaime Garcia Sr. and Gloria will be at Busch Stadium. Karina and Ahimee won't be there -- they'll both be in Texas -- but Garcia knows -- he hopes -- that very soon, there will be a time when that won't be the case.

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at Amy.K.Nelson@espn.com.