Ace in the Hole
Mariners righthander Freddy Garcia is quickly developing into a No. 1 starter
Mariners general manager Pat Gillick raised some eyebrows last month when he said that he was in the market for a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. At the time, Seattle had the best record in the majors, its starters' ERA (4.32) was fourth best in the American League and its top three pitchers, righthanders Freddy Garcia and Aaron Sele and lefthander Jamie Moyer, were a combined 22-1. Wouldn't adding another ace be like sprinkling sugar on a fudge sundae? "At some point Freddy Garcia might become a Number 1 starter," Gillick said, "[but] Freddy's 24 years old."
The G.M.'s assessment sent Garcia scurrying for advice. "He came to me two or three days later and asked what he needed to do to become a Number 1 guy," says Seattle pitching coach Bryan Price. "I told him he needed innings, to maintain consistency and not to let his emotions get in his way. It's just experience."
As the Mariners continued to pile up wins at an astounding rate—through Sunday they'd won the first three of a four-game series with the AL Central Division-leading Twins and were 19 games in front of the equally red-hot A's in the AL West—augmenting the rotation became less of a concern for Gillick, who has been concentrating his efforts on acquiring another hitter. Since July 1, Seattle starters were 9-5 with a 3.62 ERA, and the staff had already tied the franchise record for shutouts in a month, with five. Leading the way was Garcia, who was 5-2 with a 2.65 ERA since Gillick's remark, including back-to-back shutouts, against the Angels and the Dodgers, this month. " Freddy Garcia is a Cy Young Award waiting to happen," says one scout who has followed Seattle this season, "and it might be this year."
Gaudy numbers—overall, he was 11-2 with a 3.46 ERA, ninth best in the league—are nothing new for Garcia, who won 17 games as a rookie in 1999 and went 9-5 last season despite spending 2� months on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his right leg. What is new is the poise and confidence he has shown on the mound. "Freddy has too much ability not to be successful, as long as there's a thought process," says Price. "He's showing more focus, more maturity and a greater understanding of what it takes to be successful on a consistent basis."
For Garcia, a 6'4", 235-pound native of Caracas who says he grew up idolizing Roger Clemens, that means keeping his emotions in check and attacking hitters with his rare combination of power and finesse. He throws a wicked 95-mph sinking fastball, an above-average curve and a straight changeup. Yet Garcia struck out only 79 batters in his first 135? innings this season. Instead, he has learned to locate pitches and get hitters to make contact early in counts, producing quick at bats and low pitch counts.
Take his shutout of the Dodgers on July 6. He was nearly untouchable, allowing four hits, striking out five and wrapping up the effort in an economical 97 pitches. "That was as dominating a start as it would have been if he'd had 15 strikeouts," says Price. "Nobody had a comfortable swing against him."
"The more I pitch, the more I learn what I can do in tough situations," says Garcia. "I just try to keep the ball down and to make good pitches, instead of going for strikeouts."
Leery of putting too much pressure on a young starter—and mindful that the 31-year-old Sele is 12-1 with a 3.11 ERA—the Mariners are hesitant to declare Garcia their ace. However, recent progress suggests that he's on the brink of becoming the pitcher Gillick was looking for. In addition to his regular-season success, Garcia won both his starts in last year's American League Championship Series, holding the Yankees to two runs in 11? innings. Even Garcia's clubhouse nickname, Chief, has postseason connotations. The sobriquet comes from his resemblance to Chief Bromden in the film version of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, the character who raises his hand too late in a hospital-ward vote and costs the patients a chance to watch the World Series on TV.
If Garcia continues to pitch the way he has, Seattle won't have to worry about watching the World Series on TV.