Latin Link: Cardinals success could rest with Garcia

Jaime Garcia needs to have a stellar second half to help the St. Louis Cardinals reach the playoffs. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The weather is steamy and sticky in St. Louis these days, and the Cardinals, at least at home, have been pretty hot. Ditto southpaw starting pitcher Jaime Garcia, who has yet to cool off at Busch Stadium.

Leading the parade of young Mexican hurlers in the major leagues, Garcia, 24, has entertained the local folks with an unbeaten, 4-0 record, including a near-perfect game on May 6 against the Milwaukee Brewers. On that occasion, the cagey lanzador the fans call “El Gato” took the potential gem into the eighth inning, settling for a two hit, 6-0 shutout. He calls that effort the “highlight” of his young career.

“Around the sixth inning, the guys in the dugout quit talking to me,” recalls Jaime. “But I knew I was perfect. It’s hard not to think about that.”

When he suits up in Cardinal gray, however, Garcia, like his team, becomes somewhat of an enigma. His mediocre 2-2 slate includes some decent performances, like a recent, tough-luck game against the Washington Nationals when the bull pen let him down. But who can forget the ugly affair against the Colorado Rockies when Garcia was shelled for 12 earned runs?

“Some days you have good stuff and some days you don’t,” reflects Jaime. “I have confidence in my ability. You just go out there and battle.”

It’s hard not to admire a tough kid like Garcia, who is no stranger to adversity. A native of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Jaime was a prep standout at Sharyland High School across the border in Mission, Texas. As a senior, he was selected Rio Grande Valley MVP and highly touted in the 2004 MLB amateur draft. But the only team to throw Garcia a bone was the Baltimore Orioles, selecting him in the 30th round, even though area scout Joe Almarez had petitioned for an earlier slot. Disenchanted, Jaime had considered pursuing offers to play in Mexico when Almarez, who had moved on to work for St. Louis, convinced Garcia to enter the draft again in 2005. The Cardinals picked him in the 22nd round, signed him with a respectable bonus, and the rest is history.

After racking up impressive numbers for over two years in the minors, Garcia got his first varsity promotion on July 10, 2008, while playing for the triple-A Memphis Red Birds. The dream was starting to take shape.

“It was an exciting day,” remembers Barton Bickerton, Jaime’s high school coach. “We all knew it was only a matter of time before he’d get a shot.”

Garcia immediately impressed Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa with his poise and maturity, and his sinking fast ball and tilting breaking pitches were getting lots of ground ball outs. But Jaime also developed a tender elbow that didn’t heal, and underwent Tommy John surgery immediately following his first big-league season. The procedure was a major setback that cost Garcia the entire 2009 season, but a winter of hard work found him in the starting rotation when the Cardinals broke camp the following spring.

The 2010 season went far beyond expectations for Garcia, as he posted a 13-8 record and a 2.70 ERA with 132 strikeouts over 170 innings. He was a favorite to win the National League Rookie of the Year award. But Cardinal pitchers seemingly have a history of arm problems, including Cardinal king pins Chris Carpenter and Jake Westbrook. So with the team’s playoff hopes fading in mid September, pitching coach Dave Duncan made the ultimate decision to shut down Jaime for the remainder of the season.

“The organization was concerned, and rightly so, about Garcia’s health long term,” revealed Duncan.

Smart move, ironically. The Cardinals top starter, Adam Wainwright, was lost right out of the gate this season. And Carpenter, who makes $15 million a season, has struggled to his worst-ever start (1-7). Garcia, it should be noted, makes a paltry $437,000 salary, but is arbitration-eligible for the first time next year. One can only speculate, but chances are he could be awarded a deal up to $4 million. Additionally, Jaime knows his success or failure this season, especially on the road, could be pivotal in his team’s chances to win a flag.

“Every time I go out to pitch, I get mentally stronger and gain more experience,” notes Garcia. “I’m up to the challenge.”

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