ST. LOUIS -- While hopeful of what could be, the Cardinals were also understandably pragmatic when projecting what role Jaime Garcia could play in 2015. With more surgeries than full seasons pitched since debuting in 2008, Garcia had made just 16 starts from 2013-14 and endured another setback after teasing all spring that he'd be ready the first week of April.
A delayed season start and subsequent one-month interruption over the summer did stall Garcia, but neither has stopped him from showcasing himself as back, healthy and dominant once again. With another seven shutout innings in Saturdays' 4-1 win over the Pirates, Garcia reduced his ERA to 1.89, the second-lowest among all Major League pitchers with at least seven starts.
In a rotation that has been baseball's best, Garcia is emerging as its top arm.
"Anytime we have Jaime on the mound, we know -- and I keep wearing out the phrase -- but he gives us a chance," manager Mike Matheny said. "His stuff is that radically different than anybody else in the game. You're going to see some uncomfortable at-bats."
The Pirates, deploying an all-righty lineup despite Garcia's reverse splits, endured plenty of those. With the exception of Sean Rodriguez, the Pirates went 1-for-23 while striking out nine times against him. Garcia got better as he went, too, navigating through his final five innings on 71 pitches after throwing 37 over the first two.
It was the Cardinals' seventh straight win with Garcia on the mound.
"He's been amazing," said third baseman Matt Carpenter, who helped support Garcia with a two-run homer. "When he's healthy and he's out there, he's as good as anybody we have and is as good as anybody in the league. Guys just don't take good swings off him. He takes the plate and he cuts it in half."
Over 15 starts, Garcia has held his opponent scoreless four times, limited them to one earned run four times and given up as many as four earned runs just once. All but one of his starts has registered at least six innings.
His return to the mound after a June groin injury has provided a different look in a rotation that employed all right-handers to open the season. Having him available for the stretch run is also a luxury the Cards haven't had in some time.
Garcia's 2013 season ended in May. A year later, he lasted only until June. Even in 2012, his aspirations of contributing in the postseason faded when his Division Series start was cut short by a rotator cuff strain.
What he couldn't do then, Garcia hopes to accomplish now, seeing September and October as an opportunity to finally make a meaningful impact again.
"I've been through a really tough time in my career the last couple of years. A lot of downs," Garcia said. "But at the same time, I've been able to keep my head up and not worry about anything but the things I can control. [Being healthy now] is something I'm really, really grateful and excited about and thankful for."