Commentary

Freddy Garcia comes to Yanks' rescue

With the team's young starters struggling, the veteran righty pitched a gem Saturday

Updated: April 17, 2011, 3:11 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- The Yankees needed this.

After putting one starting pitcher, Phil Hughes, on the disabled list Friday with a dead arm, and seeing another, Ivan Nova, still trying to learn what it takes to get past the fifth inning of a big league start, the Yankees needed Freddy Garcia to come out and ignore the raw 46-degree weather, the bone-chilling rain, the rust from the 18-day layoff he had since his last start way back in spring training, and suspend all the talk -- for one day, anyway -- that the Yankees are hurtling toward a starting pitching crisis.

[+] EnlargeFreddy Garcia
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesGarcia used to throw heat; now he gets by with guile.

That was a partial checklist of things working against Garcia when he took the mound at Yankee Stadium on Saturday. But what made the two-hit, six-inning gem that Garcia threw even more impressive was that it came against a Texas Rangers lineup that had not just beaten the Yankees eight of the past 13 times they played, but often "pounded" them -- to borrow manager Joe Girardi's term -- including during last year's playoffs.

Though Yankees reliever Rafael Soriano made it interesting in the eighth -- coughing up two runs, and then seeing Adrian Beltre curl what would've been a go-ahead three-run homer just six or seven feet wide of the right field foul pole -- Soriano eventually coaxed Beltre into an inning-ending double play, Robinson Cano added a two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth, and the Yankees hung on for a 5-2 win.

"Freddy did a great job today of keeping them off-balance, using all his pitches," Girardi said. "The lesson is you don't have to throw 95 [miles per hour]. You have to locate and change speeds and change pitches ... have command and use the whole strike zone."

Nova and Hughes should pay attention.

"I didn't know what was going to happen -- I found a way to make it happen," Garcia said.

Garcia used to be a power pitcher, but nowadays the 35-year-old right-hander lives mostly on off-speed stuff in the 80 to 85 mph range, plus a fastball that can touch 89, though he changes speeds with that as well. He wasn't a lock to make the Yankees' roster this spring, and he admits he heard the talk coming out of spring training that Yankees reclamation project Bartolo Colon, who began the regular season as their long relief man, actually deserved the fifth spot in the rotation more than he did.

Both of them signed incentive-laden minor league deals with the Yankees. Garcia's spring-training ERA was 4.91, compared to Colon's 2.40, before their roles were announced. But Garcia was 12-6 for the White Sox last season, while the 37-year-old Colon hadn't pitched in the big leagues since 2009. And in the end, that persuaded Girardi and Yankees general manager Brian Cashman to trust Garcia more.

Saturday was Garcia's first chance to answer the talk with his arm.

"I didn't listen to what anyone was saying, because when you start doing that, you don't do your job," Garcia said, shrugging. Tapping his chest now, he said, "I know what I can do."

When baseball people talk about "professional" starts, performances like Garcia's mind-over-matter outing on Saturday are exactly what they mean. Nothing that Garcia had done recently suggested he could pull a performance out of the bag like this. But the 13 big league seasons Garcia put in before this told you plenty. He kept the Rangers off-kilter with an array of changeups, sliders and curves, an occasional splitter that left them swinging at air, and an 86 mph or so fastball that seemed faster compared to all the soft stuff he threw. He moved the ball up and down, in and out.

It was the classic case of a guy who knows how to pitch, as opposed to a guy that just throws. Nothing more complicated than that.

"Smart," Rangers manager Ron Washington said.

Garcia, looking almost nostalgic now, admitted that when he used to be a power pitcher he enjoyed "blowing people away," but now his velocity is such that "sometimes I don't pitch to the scouting report. I don't throw that hard anymore so I've got to make things happen ... I have to keep the ball down and make good pitches, especially against this kind of lineup that's aggressive. I try to mix speeds all the time, every at-bat. I know what they're looking for but I've got five pitches ... so I try to set them up all the time."

Garcia was efficient Saturday and had surprisingly good command (55 of his 84 pitches were strikes). By the time he left he had given the Yankees their first reason to feel good about their rotation in several days.

With staff ace CC Sabathia starting Sunday, the Yankees have the rare opportunity to win a series against Texas, rather than watch the Rangers head out of town having exposed some of their weaknesses again. The Yankees needed this, all right.

But the season is long and the rotation remains a question mark, and now it only gets harder for Garcia. His debut was terrific. Now they need him to keep this up.

Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.

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