This, folks, is why Cardinals have maintained faith in Garcia

ST. LOUIS — The Cardinals’ search for a fifth starter appears to be over, at least for now.

Jaime Garcia’s first three outings proved he’s worthy of inclusion in the best rotation in baseball, the only group in the majors with a combined ERA under 3.00. If the lefty can stay healthy and keep pitching like he did in Monday’s 1-0 loss, he could even be one of St. Louis’ best.

"Any time you lose a game you’re never happy, so I don’t want to say happy," Garcia said. "Am I encouraged by the way I’m feeling physically and competing? Yeah."

It would be hard for him to feel otherwise, considering the way he dominated the Brewers for the better part of seven innings. They mustered only three hits while striking out three times and hitting just three flyball outs.

Jean Segura led off the game with a single, advanced to second on Ryan Braun’s sharp groundball back to Garcia and scored on Carlos Gomez’s single to left. After that minor blip, Garcia would have retired 17 batters in a row if not for his error on a high throw to first base in the fifth.

He still faced the minimum during that stretch, thanks to Luis Sardinas’ double play started by third baseman Matt Carpenter.

"That’s just a shame we wasted a start like that," Matheny said afterward. "He could have gone a complete game. His stuff was that good today."

Instead, Matheny had no choice but to send Randal Grichuk up to pinch hit for Garcia and try to create some offense with a man on first and one out in the bottom of the seventh. Garcia’s night ended after a remarkably efficient 86 pitches, and Grichuk grounded into a double play to end the inning.

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The left-hander’s second loss belies the strength of three solid starts, all of which included at least six innings with an average of two earned runs allowed. That’s a vast improvement over Tim Cooney and Tyler Lyons, neither of whom lasted more than five innings or gave up fewer than three runs in any of four combined starts as Adam Wainwright’s replacement in the rotation.

Health concerns will always loom over Garcia, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury before the midpoint of last season and encountered more problems after a promising start to spring training. But Matheny said the Cardinals have always known the 28-year-old could provide significant contributions, thanks to unique movement on all of his pitches.

He said command of his signature sinker keeps improving, and it showed with no walks for the second straight game following five in his 2015 debut. The Brewers had 13 groundball outs, along with Garcia’s error and an infield single, in 23 plate appearances.

"He had a great sinker today," Matheny said. "His slider was probably as sharp as we’ve seen it, mixed in the curveball and changeup enough, but just late hard movement in the bottom of the zone turns into the ability to throw less than 90 pitches thru seven."

It’s what St. Louis learned to expect early in Garcia’s career, especially when he posted a career-best 2.70 ERA over 28 starts in 2010. Coincidentally, his ERA currently sits at that exact same number so far in 2015, accompanied by an even more impressive 1.05 WHIP.

You can follow Luke Thompson on Twitter at @FS_LukeT or email him at lukegthompson87@gmail.com.