PORT ST. LUCIE, FL. (KMOV.com) -- Jaime Garcia made his second start of the spring, and worked with new catcher Brayan Pena for the first time. The results were tremendous, as the lefty went 3.2 innings on 53 pitches, striking out two and allowing no runs.
For Pena, it was his first taste catching the toughest assignment in the Cardinal rotation.
“Hooooooo, man. It’s amazing. You have to be ready. That’s something I got from Mike Matheny and Yadier Molina, that’s the feedback they gave me,” Pena said of Garcia’s pitch movement. “I’ve never seen nothing like that before. Every time that I was catching, I felt Matheny on this [shoulder] and Yadier Molina on [the other]. ‘Don’t get too comfortable out there, continue to be on your toes.’ Because he’s got so much movement that if you fall asleep you’ll commit a passed ball or something.”
Garcia used his second start to test drive his pitches, working in everything he throws. His trademark sinker was plummeting out of the zone, and the mix of breaking pitches along with his changeup kept the Mets wobbly in the early innings.
“That’s part of the beauty of why he’s so difficult to put the good part of the bat on,” manager Mike Matheny said. “The ball just does something you don’t see. He threw one to Neil Walker there that looked like it dropped a foot.”
When he’s throwing well, Garcia’s pitches are diabolical. Everything in his arsenal cuts, drops or dances, making hitters feel like their bat has a repelling magnet in the barrel. Even his four seam fastball, generally the straightest pitch an a hurler’s repertoire, has heavy sink. But he didn’t start out that way, it’s something he’s taught himself throughout his career.
“I was 25th rounder that had no movement at all. I threw 85 miles per hour. So I've had to work really hard to accomplish those things and I'm always trying to adapt and try and find different things to make it move and have better command and to have better pitches,” he said. “I've had to adapt after each surgery and each injury that I had and I'm looking forward to continue doing the same thing for the rest of my career.”
His tweaks and adaptations have thrown a wrench into the scouting systems used by professional hitters. By altering or enhancing his movement, Garcia has made himself impossible to predict. Standing in against him is like trying to solve a cryptex that changes languages every time you pick it up.
It’s a great strategy for a pitcher, and makes for tough work if you’re a catcher.
“He’s one of the most difficult guys you’ll have to catch. Because the ball runs all over the place and it’s not consistent run, that’s the thing,” Matheny said. “You can catch anybody’s movement or velocity once you see it a couple times if it becomes predictable. But he’s not.”
Pena’s vigilance paid off Thursday, and he handled Garcia flawlessly for 11 outs. When he wasn’t focusing on receiving pitches performing evasive maneuvers, he was doing his best to keep up with Garcia’s other strategy for making hitters uncomfortable, working fast.
“When you face him, and he’s got that tempo going, it’s hard for you as a hitter to get comfortable. So I kept that in my mind, every time I put the signs down,” Pena said. “That’s why when he shakes me off I have to go down right away and see the other pitch that he wants. I don’t want him to be shaking me for half an hour and then he goes, “come on, Pena.” I want to be able to not slow his tempo down.”
Pena remembers the feedback he’s heard from former teammates who faced the Cardinal lefty. When Garcia is in rhythm, he makes hitters feel rushed. Making quick decisions when facing that much pitch movement is tough, making them while flustered is a recipe for an out.
“I've heard from some of the best hitters I've played with, they don't like it when pitchers are working quick. I've worked extremely to be able to catch my breath. I know when I'm going at my best I'm quick and fast. It's a fine line, you don't want to go too quick, but I've always liked that. Don't give the hitter too much time to think what I'm going to throw,” Garcia said.
“It’s one of those things where you go like, ‘wow this guy is in the greatest shape ever because he doesn’t take a break,’” Pena added. “He keeps you guessing and guessing. Then you see it’s the fourth inning, fifth inning and the game is pretty much over.”
The two worked well in their first game together, and though Garcia shook some pitches off, Pena’s ability to quickly adjust kept the pressure on the hitters all afternoon. Garcia will have three more starts before the end of spring, and his movement will only get sharper. That means tougher tests for his backstops and tougher days for his opponents.