August 23, 2006

Twins 4, Orioles 1

The reaction to Matt Garza's big-league debut earlier this month is an example of why I tend not to get overly worked up about a single game. Garza gave up seven runs in 2.2 innings against the Blue Jays, and far too many fans and members of the media seemed willing to write him off as a bust, at least for this season.

Both fans and the media tend to view prospects as unknown commodities, so much so that they often gravitate to one extreme or the other based on their first impression. For instance, if Garza had pitched well against Toronto two weeks ago, thoughts of Garza replacing Francisco Liriano alongside Johan Santana and Brad Radke in the playoff rotation undoubtedly would have been running rampant.

Instead, he pitched poorly and thoughts of Garza being the next Adam Johnson immediately invaded a shocking number of minds. As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Good or bad, one game means almost nothing in the grand scheme of things, particularly when that one game is a 22-year-old's first in the majors.

Was Garza's debut a rough one? Absolutely. Was it reason enough for everyone to change their view of him as an elite prospect and a huge part of the Twins' future? Of course not. I tried to express that sentiment after watching Garza struggle against the Blue Jays, writing:

There were still several positive things to be taken from the game. For one thing, his fastball was electric and his breaking stuff, while not thrown particularly often or with much consistency, was plenty impressive at times. In other words, Garza looked great on individual pitches, but the collective effort was very uneven and shaky.

He looked incredibly nervous nearly the entire time, so much so that his actual delivery to the plate seemed out of whack. Garza appeared to be telegraphing his off-speed pitches by slowing down his delivery and changing his arm angle, which is surely why he had so much trouble finishing off at-bats once he got ahead in the count.


I expected more from Garza, but his debut was probably what should have been expected from a 22-year-old pitcher who was at Single-A a couple months ago. He flashed electric stuff, but showed a lot of nerves, some inconsistent mechanics, and the inability to finish off major-league hitters. Given a chance to settle in and work with pitching coach Rick Anderson, I expect Garza to improve quickly.

To both Garza's and Rick Anderson's credit, that's exactly what has happened. Garza's second start, while unspectacular, was a significant step up from his initial offering. He tossed five innings of three-run ball against the Indians, finishing off at-bats to the tune of five strikeouts, keeping the ball in the ballpark, and generally staying out of serious trouble.

His third outing was another step in the right direction, although the shape of Garza's outstanding performance against the Orioles last night was an odd one. If told that Garza gave up one run over six innings, I would have guessed that at least a half-dozen strikeouts were involved. In reality, Garza's only strikeout came when he threw a 95-MPH fastball past Corey Patterson in the second inning.

In his first start, Garza got two-strike counts on eight hitters, but was able to finish just two of them off with strikeouts. In his second start, Garza put five hitters away in those situations. Last night, Garza stopped trying to miss bats and focused on pitching to contact. That may sound an awful lot like the approach Carlos Silva took on the way to serving up five homers Tuesday night, but it wasn't.

Silva simply threw the ball over the heart of the plate and dared the Orioles to hit it as far as possible. Garza attacked hitters in and around the strike zone, but did so with quality, non-meatball pitches that induced ground balls and catchable flies. Garza was able to make that approach work because he pitched efficiently, looking for weak contact rather than strikeouts once he got ahead in the count.

As a wise man once said:

Don't try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring. Besides that, they're fascist. Throw some ground balls, it's more democratic.

Over the long haul, Garza's ability to rack up strikeouts is incredibly important and he figures to thrive at it. In the short term, it's impressive that he was able to switch gears, following up a horrendous first outing with back-to-back solid starts that held almost no resemblance to one another. The challenge going forward will be to produce a performance that combines those gears.

Garza eventually wants to get ahead in the count, finish hitters off with two strikes, pitch efficiently, and induce weak contact when a strikeout isn't always an option. He's shown the ability to do all of those things already, but not in the same start. Much like when Liriano posted a 5.70 ERA in 23.2 September innings last season, Garza has mixed plenty of reason for optimism in with his 6.59 ERA thus far.

Garza has shown an overpowering fastball, decent control, and quality breaking stuff, plus the ability to improve his mechanics with work and some calming of the nerves. He put himself in position to take advantage of the outstanding defense behind him last night, but also shook off a dangerous situation when Jason Bartlett booted a likely double-play grounder in the third inning.

As Ron Gardenhire told reporters after Garza's first major-league win: "Our young guy did a heck of a job. He threw the ball fantastic." And there's a lot more where that came from.

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