Time for Garza to realize potential

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Matt Garza – to paraphrase Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis – has a gift. When he was a baby, the gods reached down and turned his right arm into a thunderbolt.

On Monday, the Tampa Bay right-hander unleashed that gift on the Detroit Tigers, dazzling them with an array of high, hard fastballs and tight-spinning breaking balls on the way to the first no-hitter in Rays history, and the fifth in Major League Baseball this season.

It was an impressive outing. Twenty-seven men came to the plate, and Garza allowed only one of them to reach base — Brennan Boesch, on a second-inning walk — and he was immediately erased on a Ryan Raburn double-play grounder.

There was a leaping catch by Ben Zobrist to rob Danny Worth in the sixth inning, and there was a frightening line drive by Miguel Cabrera hit directly to Carl Crawford in the eighth. And yes, this was a depleted Tigers lineup playing without the services of Magglio Ordonez, Brandon Inge and Carlos Guillen. But it was still a dominant performance.

As Rays manager Joe Maddon told the AP, “They’re all major league players and it’s a no-hitter. They’re not going to make any excuses, I know that.”

The question now, though, is how will Garza follow up the most noteworthy outing of his career? Will this signal the rise of a star, or will Garza settle back into the sometimes-great, sometimes-mediocre rhythm that has so far marked his young career?

Garza will never be Bud Smith, the Cardinals left-hander who emerged from nowhere to throw a no-hitter as a rookie in 2001, only to fade back into obscurity shortly thereafter. In his fifth season in the majors and with a 2008 ALCS MVP award under his belt, Garza has already lapped Smith.

But can he build on this and finally move into the upper echelon of elite right-handers? Can he become Roy Halladay, or at least Justin Verlander? Garza has shown signs of potential greatness in the past. In 2008, he baffled the Florida Marlins with a one-hitter. He had arrived, it seemed, and went on to go 11-9 with a 3.70 ERA in just his first full season in the majors.

But his development has not come as hoped by Rays fans. His temper has gotten the better of him at times, and his ERA, WHIP and home run rate have risen in each of the last two seasons. Meanwhile, it has been David Price – not Garza – who has emerged as the ace of a young Tampa staff.

Garza is now 26, and entering what should be his prime. He is no-longer the wild-eyed rookie, but a young veteran with World Series experience. He’s sitting on a career record just south of .500 and an ERA just north of 4.00. The time is now for both to improve.

Garza told the St. Petersburg Times that he paced the hallway connecting dugout to clubhouse between each inning on Monday, clutching a towel in his hand and practicing his pitching motion.

“I had to keep reminding myself that this is how it’s supposed to feel,” Garza said. “That’s all I said, over and over. This is how it’s supposed to feel.”

This is how it’s supposed to feel. If Garza can finally figure that out, the Rays will be very happy, indeed.

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The Cubs are in desperate need of relief

Associated Press
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Tonight in Chicago Yu Darvish of the Dodgers will face off against Kyle Hendricks of the Cubs. If this were Game 1, we’d have a lot to say about the Dodgers’ trade deadline pickup and the Cubs’ budding ace. If this series continues on the way it’s been going, however, each of them will be footnotes because it has been all about the bullpens.

The Cubs, you may have heard, are having tremendous problems with relief pitching. Both their own and with the opposition’s. Cubs relievers have a 7.03 ERA this postseason, and have allowed six runs on eight hits and have walked six batters in seven innings of work. And no, the relief struggles aren’t just a matter of Joe Maddon pushing the wrong buttons (even though, yeah, he has pushed the wrong buttons).

Maddon pushed Wade Davis for 44 pitches in Game 5 of the NLDS, limiting his availability in Games 1 and 2. That pushing is a result of a lack of relief depth on the Cubs. Brian Duensing, Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. all have talent and all have had their moments, but none of them are the sort of relievers we have come to see in the past few postseasons. The guys who, when your starter tosses 80 pitches in four innings like Jon Lester did the other night, can be relied upon to shut down the opposition for three and a half more until your lights-out closer can get the four-out save.

In contrast, the Dodgers bullpen has been dominant, tossing eight scoreless innings. Indeed, Dodgers relievers have tossed eight almost perfect innings, allowing zero hits and zero walks while striking out nine Cubs batters. The only imperfection came when Kenley Jansen hit Anthony Rizzo in Game 2. That’s it. Compare this to the past couple of postseasons where the only truly reliable arm down there was Jansen, and in which Dodgers managers have had to rely on Clayton Kershaw to come on in relief. That has not been a temptation at all as the revamped L.A. pen, featuring newcomers Brandon Morrow and Tony Watson. Suffice it to say, Joe Blanton is not missed.

Which brings us back to Kyle Hendricks. He has pitched twice this postseason, pitching seven shutout innings in Game 1 of the NLDS but getting touched for four runs on nine hits while allowing a couple of dingers in Game 5. If the good Hendricks shows up, Maddon will be able to ride him until late in the game in which a now-rested Davis and maybe either Strop or Edwards can close things out in conventional fashion, returning this series to competitiveness. If the bad Hendricks does, he’ll have to do what he did in that NLDS Game 5, using multiple relievers and, perhaps, a repurposed starter in relief while grinding Davis into dust again. That was lucky to work there and doing it without Davis didn’t work in Game 2 on Sunday night.

So it all falls to Hendricks. The Dodgers have shown how soft the underbelly of the Cubs pen truly is. If they get to Hendricks early and get into that pen, you have to like L.A’s chances, not just in this game, but for the rest of the series, as bullpen wear-and-tear builds up quickly. It’s pretty simple: Hendricks has to give the Cubs some innings tonight. There is no other option available.

Just ask Joe Maddon. He’s tried.