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For Tampa Bay Rays' Matt Garza, heat now limited to fastballs

ST. PETERSBURG

Eleven pitches in, and already, the struggle for control had begun again.

This is where he came in. Once again, Matt Garza was stalking the mound, circling it counter-clockwise. The temptation, quite frankly, was to find the Kevlar.

Four batters in, and Garza's patience was being tested once more. Yours, too.

The key moments of a baseball game are odd, because they can sneak up on you at any time. For Garza, and for the Rays, they started almost immediately on Tuesday night.

One minute, they were playing the national anthem, and the next, the bases were loaded with Yankees. Brett Gardner hit a bloop single, and Derek Jeter's inside-out swing found a hole, and Mark Teixeira walked.

As quickly as that, before any of the Rays had time to read the inscriptions on their new championship rings, Garza was in trouble.

And, as he did for most of the second half of last season, Garza stood up to it.

On a largely forgettable night — winless, almost hitless and beyond relief — this was the good news for the Rays. In trouble from the outset, Garza did not wilt. Given every chance, Meltdown Matt did not return. Instead, Garza gathered himself, he swallowed the fire, and he gave his team a chance.

In other words, he looked a lot more like the Matt Garza who finished the season instead of the one who started it.

Once again, Garza looked as if he has grown. As the Rays look toward the months to come, that's a good thing.

Oh, you remember, don't you? For the first 10 weeks of last season, Garza was the combustible Ray, and the only thing with more heat than his fastball was his personality. It got to the point where his catcher was ready to knock him down and his manager was ready to send him down.

Out of those volatile beginnings, however, Garza found a way to right himself. He was a changed pitcher, and a terrific one, the second half of last year. In fact, the last time he had taken the mound at the Trop, he had finished off the Red Sox in the ALCS and won himself the series MVP.

"This was familiar," manager Joe Maddon said, "to what we saw at the end of last year."

Still, maturity is not always a straight line. If ever there was an invitation to return to those days, to give into his rage, this was it. Two lob wedges into no-man's land? A walk? It was like loading the scoreboard with dynamite.

Yet, Garza responded. He gave up only one run in that inning, and only one more in the next six. The Rays eventually lost, but not before Garza gave them a chance to tie it at 2 with his second straight excellent game.

"I'm an emotional guy," he said. "Obviously, I had to fight (the temper) back. It's an everyday thing. I was telling myself, 'just focus and get to the next pitch.' Fortunately, I was able to fight it back."

To Maddon, Garza looked as if he were fighting a different fight than last year. Maddon never thought Garza was about to lose it.

"In the past," Maddon said, "he would get too quick. He would be spitting fire out there, as well as saliva. He just would never be able tot get his emotions in control. Now, he's just spitting."

For Garza, that is where the test will always begin. He always will be emotional, and there will always be a tester of a moment in a big game, and he will always have to reign in the rage.

"I think you still have to be careful," Maddon said. "He may be subject to reverting back to what he was. He's not a totally finished product. But I do like how he's able to catch himself and right himself. I think he's learned how to do that."

Garza's teammates have noticed, too.

"He's definitely matured a lot," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "On the mound you can see stuff, like in the first inning. Last year you could just see in his face, he wanted to get going 100 miles an hour and just try to throw harder and make everything nastier when his stuff is pretty damn good on its own.

"I think now he's able to get off the rubber, relax and calm himself and go out there and make pitches and that's the difference."

Good thing. In the months to come, Garza figures to be a key ingredient for the Rays. If they're going to do anything with this season, he's going to be a factor.

And that's the thing. Before he can be considered a fireballer, he first must control the flame.

For Tampa Bay Rays' Matt Garza, heat now limited to fastballs 04/14/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 15, 2009 6:31am]
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