Among the Cardinals' pleasant surprises, Garcia ranks almost at the top
JUN 20, 2014 1:27p ET
ST. LOUIS -- In a Cardinals season that hasn't seen a surplus of pleasant surprises, Pat Neshek makes an obvious No. 1. Entering spring training on a minor-league contract and working his way into the main setup role, with a 0.92 ERA to show for it, Neshek has been fun to follow.
The heartwarming story about the birth of his son during spring training has made it even easier to root for him. Add the highly important (for some of us, anyway) fact that Neshek gives good quotes and as long I'm voting, he's the winner of the unofficial "most unlikely player to step up in the first half" award.
But who's No. 2? That's a tougher call, mainly because of a lack of candidates. Such a shortage doesn't mean any number of Cardinals aren't enjoying strong seasons. Many are playing as well as anyone in the game at their position -- but that's what we expected. Right, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina?
Lefty reliever Sam Freeman has come up and earned a greater role in the bullpen than most would have predicted in March. Matt Adams and his .326 batting average certainly haven't been a disappointment. Neither has Jon Jay, who simply refuses to let go of the center-field job. Overall, the pitching staff has featured far more plus than minus performers.
But except for Neshek, no one on the club has surprised me more than 27-year-old left-hander Jaime Garcia. It's not that Garcia has taken his pitching to a new level. It's mainly that he's been able to pitch. Admit it, did you think he would have made six starts without missing a turn by late June -- seven after he takes the hill Friday night against A.J. Burnett and the Phillies?
After last year's season-ending shoulder surgery, Garcia seemed healthy at the end of last October and he entered spring training on the same kind of program as the other starters. But before the exhibitions even began, he was back in St. Louis dealing with issues in his left shoulder. Oh no, here he goes again. Garcia hasn't had a healthy season since 2011, and to ask if he would have another one was not an unfair question.
But Garcia eventually returned to Jupiter and plugged on. He made a side visit to Dr. James Andrews' arm clinic that seemed to help, or at least made Garcia realize he could pitch through some discomfort without risking further injury. He continued to progress, quietly but steadily, in extended spring training after the Cardinals broke camp.
Then in his first at-bat in his first rehab start, he was hit on the elbow and you had to feel sorry for him. Would the guy ever catch a break? While the HBP led to some numbness in his elbow when he was pitching -- a fact he did not disclose until after his fifth start -- it did not cost Garcia any real time. He made his second rehab start the following week and six days later, he was back on the mound at Busch Stadium.
He hasn't missed a turn since. Garcia has not been Wainwright-esque or anything in his six starts, but he's pitched better than his 3.72 ERA would indicate. In his three wins, he has allowed a total of four runs. In three no-decisions, the Cardinals have suffered one-run losses. Home runs hurt him against the Braves and Giants but he otherwise pitched well. One blowup inning cost him against the Royals, but since that six-run meltdown Garcia has won his past two starts, working seven innings in each and allowing a total of eight hits and one run. His command has been sharp and his two-seam fastball has been jumping.
He remains wary of talking about his comeback, almost as if he doesn't want to risk jinxing a dash of long-awaited good fortune. After listening to his media briefing after a start, I sometimes wonder if he really enjoys his job, but it's not hard to understand why he might not be consumed with enthusiasm. Pitching with the aches and soreness that must come with a left arm that has undergone both shoulder and Tommy John surgery cannot be that much fun.
Still, there's no doubt Garcia has given the rotation a lift and he continues to put up better outings.
"He's getting out there producing," manager Mike Matheny said Thursday. "He's going good right now. He's in a good spot."
Who knows, he might even be able to shut down Ryan Howard, a challenge the Cardinals have not met with much success. Howard is hitting .371 against the Cardinals in his career but is just 2 for 15 with one homer and eight strikeouts against Garcia.
Because Garcia has missed so much time in the past two years, it's easy to overlook how long he has been around. Only Wainwright and Molina have been with the big-league club longer than Garcia, who debuted in 2008 and was given a four-year, $27 million extension after 2011, his last healthy season.
"He's not in the same category as a lot of those other guys," Matheny said. "He's been around enough. He's gone through evolutions as a pitcher and it's just a matter of him being healthy, being consistent and in a good frame of mind as far as how he feels about his stuff."
The skipper did not sound surprised that Garcia has been able to come back this strongly, but I am. Very pleasantly so, in fact.