Garza executes game plan beautifully

Garza executes game plan beautifully

BOSTON -- The replay of Matt Garza and Dioner Navarro and their spirited mound meeting over the summer at Texas was again on television Monday. The highlight of Garza and Navarro splitting lunch at a local eatery Monday was a little less public.

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Before picking apart strategies against Red Sox hitters, pitcher and catcher picked apart some pizza. Then they went about picking the corners of the strike zone.

"We were just having a nice time before getting to the ballpark," Navarro said after Garza's Game 3 gem helped the Rays silence a capacity crowd at Fenway Park and pull ahead in this American League Championship Series.

"And that's why we're so good. I know a lot of people have been talking about pressure, that we don't have any experience in the playoffs and all that. But ever since we clinched, we've been saying the same stuff: Why change now?"

Few pitchers on the Rays arguably have faced more pressure in the postseason than Garza, who has had to pitch on the road in both of his postseason starts. Last week, he stepped into the full fury of Chicago's South Side fans. Monday brought a taste of playoff baseball in Boston.

Yet the supposedly combustible Garza of the past has been nowhere to be found. Monday was arguably the biggest outing of his life to date, but there seemed to be a calm determination about him, even as he discussed his meticulous game plan against some of the AL's most dangerous hitters.

He had no shortage of motivation, mind you. Two days of talk about the Red Sox's great left-hander, Jon Lester, resonated with the Rays' young right-hander, and his teammates knew it. But they trusted him to let it work to his advantage.

"I knew I couldn't let my emotion get the best of me," Garza said. "I had to go out there and pitch my game. Every inning was 0-0. Couldn't stray from that. Every inning, keep attacking."

Buckling down
Matt Garza had a .218 batting average against with runners in scoring position this season, which ranked third among AL pitchers who logged 40 or more innings.
Rank
Pitcher
Team
BAA
1
Daisuke Matsuzaka
Bos.
.164
2
Roy Halladay
Tor.
.214
3
Matt Garza
TB
.218
4
Felix Hernandez
Sea.
.223
5
Daniel Cabrera
Bal.
.229
The result was another chapter in the series where none of the pitching matchups have gone as planned. As much as Lester's struggles surprised Boston, Garza's success made a pretty big impression, too -- enough to silence an October crowd at Fenway.

"Garza is the main reason why won that game," manager Joe Maddon said of the 9-1 Rays victory. "I really believe in that."

To Maddon, the starting pitcher sets the tone. Garza's tone was one of relatively quiet execution of a game plan. While the Rays' offense stuck to its approach against Lester, Garza rarely, if ever, wavered from his goal, even as the Red Sox built some potential rallies early. He took a heavy arsenal of fastballs and aimed them for the corners.

A good part of Garza's game plan, Hickey said, comes from Garza. It's a contrast to the image of Garza that emerged from that summer highlight.

"Matt himself is one of the best prepared in terms of game plan that we have," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "He comes and he tells me basically what he's going to do, vs. me telling him what he ought to do."

He was disappointed in his last start that he didn't execute his pitches, and that he put extra runners on base to allow the hits he did give up to loom larger. He challenged himself to keep attacking Red Sox hitters, to ignore the stage and Boston's track record, and to not let trouble spots set him up to beat himself.

"They've got a great team. They're going to get on base," Navarro said. "The goal was to minimize damage, and he did a great job. He did what he's supposed to do."

Potential trouble spots early vanished quickly. He gave up a one-out double to Dustin Pedroia in the opening inning and fell behind on a 2-0 count to David Ortiz, but answered with three straight fastballs around the outside corner -- the last for a called third strike. A 3-0 count to Kevin Youkilis became an inning-ending groundout thanks to back-to-back well-placed fastballs.

After back-to-back hits had runners on second and third and one out for Jason Varitek in the second, Garza made arguably his best pitch of the night -- a 2-2 fastball that registered at 97 mph on the broadcast radar gun and hit enough of the inside corner for a called strike.

Matt Garza's past five starts
Date
Opponent
IP
H
ER
BB
SO
HR
Sept. 13
Yankees
5
6
3
3
3
1
Sept. 17
Red Sox
4 2/3
5
3
2
3
2
Sept. 27
Tigers
5
4
3
2
3
1
Oct. 5
White Sox
6
7
5
4
4
0
Oct. 13
Red Sox
6
6
1
3
5
0
Total
26 2/3
28
15
14
18
4
That pitch, Hickey said, would've been tough for anyone to hit. And it came in a situation where any solid contact could've scored a run.

"When he got into the trouble spot, he really maintained his composure and executed his pitches," Hickey said, "vs. trying to just turbo-power his way through it without regard to the execution of the pitches. That fastball on Varitek, to finish him off, was a classic example of really focusing and executing."

Two pitches later, Alex Cora flied out to corner, and Garza went to the dugout with a 1-0 lead. By the time he stepped back out for the third, it was 5-0.

"Here's my best stuff," Garza described it, "and let's see what you've got. That's all I can do."

It was plenty.

"He pounded the zone at 97 mph and threw a 12-6 curveball and threw a slider," Pedroia marveled. "He pitched great."

He's meticulous, arguably a perfectionist. But as the stakes get bigger, Garza isn't letting it force him to overdo it. He's having lunch before games instead of having nerves. And when his catcher comes along, he's buying.

No reason to change that game plan, Navarro suggested.

"He's got to buy me lunch," Narvarro joked.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.