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Welcome Matt: Garza paves way

Welcome Matt: Garza paves way

ST. PETERSBURG -- Matt Garza isn't normally a pacer, but the young right-hander found himself nervously working the Rays' dugout on Sunday night, the fate of the American League Championship Series Game 7's final two innings completely out of his hands.

And as Garza watched four Rays relievers keep his two-run lead intact to seal Tampa Bay's 3-1 win, it wasn't long before the dazzling starter was being shoved right back on center stage.

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But this time Garza's hands were full, as he cradled the much-deserved ALCS MVP trophy before hoisting it in the air in front of a capacity crowd at Tropicana Field.

The scene -- in the middle of a historic on-field celebration for the franchise -- was an emotional one, a symbol of Garza's trials and tribulations coming full circle.

"In the biggest stage of his life," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said, "he came up with one of the biggest games of his life."

It didn't look that way early on, as Boston's Dustin Pedroia took Garza deep just one out into the game. He issued a walk to the next batter, David Ortiz, before hunkering down to retire 15 of the next 16 hitters.

With the best stuff on the Rays' staff, Garza stunned each Red Sox batter. And when it became apparent that Boston's batters were trying to crowd the plate, Garza retaliated by brushing back Kevin Youkilis and hitting Pedroia with a pitch in the third inning.

"They were diving in a lot, trying to take away the inside corner," Garza said. "It was just a message."

One that each ensuing Sox batter undoubtedly heard loud and clear: Garza wasn't going to back down.

Matt Garza's 2008 postseason

"He showed nothing but heart and guts," Rays Game 6 starter James Shields said. "That's what he's all about. That's the type of pitcher he is and that's the type of pitcher he wants to be. He did an unbelievable job."

For the second consecutive start, Garza outdueled Boston wunderkind Jon Lester, tossing seven-plus innings of two-hit baseball with nine strikeouts and three walks. The pair squared off in Game 3 in Fenway Park, a contest in which Garza later admitted he used Lester's hype as motivation.

There was no extra incentive needed for Sunday's game, as Garza's victory punched the Rays' ticket to the franchise's first World Series.

After Pedroia went deep, Jason Bay's seventh-inning single was the only other hit charged to Garza in the gutsy 118-pitch performance.

"This guy didn't miss a beat," Hickey said. "The way that he was going, there was no doubt that we were going to send him back out there despite the high pitch count. He didn't lose a drop."

For Hickey and the Rays, it was a sign of just how far Garza has come from his combustible early-season starts. A highly emotional performer, Garza got into a much-publicized on-field spat with catcher Dioner Navarro on June 8. Shortly after, Garza began seeing a sports psychologist and the batterymates worked out what Garza deemed a "family feud."

Since the incident, Garza has emerged as a more controlled and focused hurler, traits that showed up two-fold on Sunday night.

"If we can stay focused within ourselves, that's victory, you know?" Rays first baseman Carlos Pena said. "And let the chips fall where they may. ... And [Garza] was the materialization of the idea. He went out there, he looked like he was just pitching a bullpen."

For teammate Jason Bartlett, it was a particularly sweet sight to see, as the pair came over in Tampa Bay's offseason trade with the Twins.

"For him to win that MVP right there, I think a lot of people were so happy for him," Bartlett said. "I think the people in Minnesota were happy for him. It was great to see."

"To see him come this far this quickly is gratifying," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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