VIERA, Fla. -- Two hundred and sixty-one days had passed since Jaime Garcia had taken the mound in a June 20 start against the Phillies. That day didn't go well, with Garcia taking the loss after allowing seven hits and four runs in five innings.
He'd be placed on the disabled list days later, then eventually shut down for the season when it was revealed that he required thoracic outlet surgery. How Garcia would return from that procedure, or if he would at all, was in question.
Garcia put to rest the latter part of that query on Saturday with a 41-pitch start in Saturday's 6-5 loss to the Nationals at Space Coast Stadium. The edges of the outing were rough -- Garcia threw just 20 strikes, walked one, fell into a three-ball count against the final three batters he faced and struggled with fastball command -- but the achievement of simply pitching again was notable.
"Every time you take the mound, no matter what, Spring Training game or regular-season game, there is always excitement and there is always that adrenaline going," Garcia said afterward. "And after going through that thing that I went through, it was a big deal. There's always excitement, but at the same time, I felt good. I was able to control my emotions, get the first one out of the way. Now I've got to get ready for the next one."
Though his left arm feels right, Garcia knows he still has much to prove over the next month. Not only are the Cardinals seeking assurances of durability, they are also curious to see whether Garcia can still harness the natural movement of his pitches. When that is going well, it's his biggest asset.
On Saturday, though, that movement got him into some trouble. Garcia allowed three hits, one run and had to be pulled with one out in the second.
"Today, it kind of got away from me a little bit," Garcia said of his control. "The movement was a little too much. It's a matter of being able to control that. I have to do a better job than that next time."
Injuries limited Garcia to 16 starts over the last two seasons, which is why the Cardinals maintained low expectations for him coming into camp. But he could potentially pitch himself into rotation or bullpen consideration with a strong March.
Getting back on the field was the first step. Now it's about showing he can tap into his talent again and stay there.
"The fastball command, obviously, wasn't there. We have to tighten that up," manager Mike Matheny said of Garcia's start. "But it is amazing when he is on the plate, we saw a swing and a miss on a sinker to Bryce Harper that the hitter didn't touch and neither did [catcher Tony] Cruz. You don't see that very often."