ST. LOUIS -- As injuries brought seemingly constant attrition of key players from the Cardinals' 2015 roster, left-handed starting pitcher Jaime Garcia was well ahead of that trend. Garcia spent the previous three seasons battling serious arm issues and spent this season proving he was healthy.
It's gone so well that the Cardinals did something few might have expected when the year opened by giving Garcia the ball for Game 2 of the National League Division Series (Saturday, 5:30 p.m. ET/4:30 CT, TBS). St. Louis has a 1-0 lead in the series following Friday's 4-0 victory. Clubs that have won Game 1 in the NLDS have gone on to win the series 34 of 40 times.
"If it wasn't because of all the struggles and all of the downs in my career, I wouldn't be where I'm at this point in my career, spiritually, physically and mentally," Garcia said before Friday's game. "I just feel like we learn more from our downs than from our ups, and it's something I'm thankful for."
Garcia, 29, made five postseason starts in the 2011 World Series title run for St. Louis, but exited after only two innings of his 2012 NLDS Game 2 start vs. the Nationals. He admitted to pitching with a shoulder injury, and he would need rotator cuff surgery in 2013.
During the Cardinals' previous two years with playoff appearances, Garcia logged zero postseason innings and only 16 regular-season starts. In 2014, he had thoracic outlet surgery -- which required the removal of a rib -- to relieve nerve problems in his shoulder and hand.
"There were some tough days after my last surgery, but for the most part, I believed and I worked really hard to get to this point," Garcia said. "I'm just not taking anything for granted and trying to take it as the last game ever in my career."
Some shoulder soreness in Spring Training prevented Garcia from beginning the season healthy. After debuting in May, he was 10-6 with a 2.43 ERA and 1.049 WHIP in 20 starts and 129 2/3 innings. In all six of his losses, the Cardinals were shut out, but the club went 10-2 over his last 12 starts after Aug. 1 while he earned seven of the victories. That came after he missed a month with a left groin strain.
Going into the season, Cardinals management did not have expectations this optimistic.
"Candidly, I just didn't know," general manager John Mozeliak said. "I think a lot gets made about Jaime and how he's had to deal with injuries and how it has affected him. But I think most everybody would agree that when he's healthy and feeling good, he can be an amazing talent. That's what we ended up seeing."
Garcia had a 1.70 ERA in 10 home starts, compared to a 3.25 ERA in his 10 road starts this season. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny wasn't dissecting the splits, however, when he decided to give the ball to Garcia before Michael Wacha or Lance Lynn.
"We like him home, road. It doesn't matter," Matheny said. "We just know that when he's on, he's going to give us a great chance. He has all season. He has for the majority of his career when everything feels right, and he's in a good spot right now, and we want him on the mound."
Garcia has faced the Cubs six times over a big league career that began in 2008, but not once since 2012, despite the frequency of games between the NL Central rivals. Cubs manager Joe Maddon has never seen Garcia pitch in person.
"I've watched him from a distance, I know how good he is. It can somewhat work in his favor, I would think," Maddon said. "We will do our homework on him, but I think when a pitcher faces a group of hitters for the first time, he should have an advantage with that."
"What he looks like on film doesn't look like what he looks like in the box," Matheny offered. "But it all comes down to execution and him being on his game and making pitches."
Come Saturday, Garcia will have the chance to put his injury-checkered past in the past. With a strong start, he could help put his team one game away from advancing before the series shifts to Game 3 at Wrigley Field on Monday. The Cards are 8-0 when winning Game 1 of the NLDS, while the Cubs are 0-11 when losing the first game of any series.
"At the end of the year, whatever happens, then I will have time to really sit down and think about everything that happened," said Garcia, who is 0-2 with a 4.23 ERA in six postseason starts. "For right now, all I'm thinking about is just getting ready for [Saturday] and hopefully play baseball for one more month."