ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- Jaime Garcia was drafted in the 25th round, had a fastball that topped out at 85 miles per hour, and by his own assessment threw everything but his breaking ball straight as a string.
He felt his promising career get stunted again and again by injury, watched his body accumulate one surgical scar after another. After pitching in Game 2 of the NLDS in 2012, he appeared in only 16 games over the next two years as his arm failed to hold up.
Finally, in 2014 he underwent thoracic outlet surgery, a rather gruesome procedure he believed could alleviate the underlying cause of all his issues. He returned to win 10 games and post a 2.43 ERA in 2015, but never let himself revel in the accomplishment. Not even when the Cardinals won 100 games and took the NL Central. Not even when he returned to a playoff mound.
That’s why Thursday’s dominating complete game against Milwaukee, one in which he struck out a career-best 13 batters and outhit the Brewers by himself, felt like a well-deserved celebration.
“Obviously, once the game is over I won’t lie, I do enjoy it,” Garcia said at his locker. “It was fun. Fun to be out there and we needed that win, so I’m glad I was able to help the team.”
That was the extent of his levity. Garcia wants only to compete, and with one contest won, it’s time to prepare for the next. On the mound, he lives in the moment with such dedication that he rarely knows the circumstances around him. He didn’t know he struck out 13, the most by a Cardinal lefty since Steve Carlton in 1970, until reporters asked him about it. He claims not to have noticed the no-hitter he was carrying into the sixth inning. He’s focused on the next pitch, on making a baseball do things only few in the sport can.
“You don’t really know how good he is unless you’re catching or playing center field. Because you don’t see how much the ball moves,” said Randal Grichuk, who spent the afternoon behind Garcia in the outfield. “He can do anything with it. It’s pretty incredible.”
“We’ve said it often that every time he goes out there he has the potential to throw a no hitter and people kind of laugh at that. They just don’t see how odd and rare his stuff is,” Mike Matheny added. “When someone is throwing a fastball that isn’t 97-98, and you’re getting that many swings and misses, or called third strikes, something is different. It’s the movement.”
Garcia got eight of his 13 strikeouts without a swing. Hitters wobbled off balance when they guessed the wrong location. They started swings and gave up, only to watch the ball dart back across the zone at the last second. They were flummoxed and frustrated, but Garcia was zen-like, focused only on the task at hand.
“I only focus on the next pitch. One pitch at a time. Every time I go back to the dugout it’s about the following inning, making a mental game plan for that next hitter,” he said. “I’m not looking at the bullpen, I’m not looking at the pitch count. I’m focusing on what pitch I’m going to throw.”
The Brewers did their best to do the same, but spent all afternoon grimacing after incorrect guesses.
The Cardinals battered Wily Peralta early and the bullpen late, giving Garcia a 7-0 lead that was never once in danger. The lefty allowed one hit and one walk, his lowest hit total and his fourth complete game shutout. He struck out the most hitters since Shelby Miller in 2013, and threw the team’s first complete game since 2014 (not counting John Lackey’s rain-shortened effort last season).
Garcia has repeatedly said there isn’t a grand finish line he’ll cross that confirms he’s made a comeback. His focus is on the next start five days away. Every healthy trip to the mound is an individual trophy, even if some sit closer to the front of the case. He takes nothing for granted after having it all ripped away so many times, so great accomplishments give way to dutiful preparation.
But after a spring in which, for the first time in years, he had a normal schedule and was absent from the hand-wringing speculation, perhaps he’ll let himself linger in the moment a little longer Thursday.
“It’s been awhile since I’ve gone nine innings, so that’s always fun. But it’s a long season and I have to try to do that again,” he said.