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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Justin Verlander earns 200th career win

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Astros starter Justin Verlander wasn’t his usual dominant self on Sunday against the Athletics, but he was good enough to get the win. In doing so, he earned the 200th win of his career, becoming the 117th member of the 200-win club.

Verlander went 5 1/3 innings, yielding four runs (all earned) on seven hits and a walk with six strikeouts. On the season, Verlander is now 12-8 with a 2.65 ERA and a 223/29 K/BB ratio in 169 2/3 innings. Sunday’s win helped the Astros stave off the surging A’s. The Astros now have a one-game lead in the AL West.

Only two active pitchers have more wins than Verlander: Bartolo Colon (247) and CC Sabathia (244). Zack Greinke will likely be the next member of the 200-win club as he currently has 184 to his name.