ST. PETERSBURG — It was a bad night. A bad inning. A bad pitch.
And, in a way, this is the best thing you can say about Matt Garza.
Let me explain:
There is no way you can decorate Garza's start against the Blue Jays on Friday night to make it look like an impressive performance. He fell behind hitters, he nibbled around the plate, he failed to make a big pitch when he needed it in the first inning.
So, yes, it was a bad outing for the hottest pitcher in the American League.
But that's all it felt like. One bad outing. One ugly loss.
And that's an important distinction for a pitcher such as Garza. You see, there was a time when a game like this would have reminded everyone of the whispers that used to trail Garza from game to game. He was the guy with the golden arm and the tarnished reputation.
Too emotional. Too immature. Too fill-in-the-blank. The Twins grew tired of waiting for him to grow up and traded him right after his 24th birthday. The Rays once wondered if he needed to go back to Triple A to grow up a little more.
The rap was that he let little problems grow into big innings. He would get flustered by a walk or a line drive or an error, and all heck would break loose. He would overthrow his fastball or forget his game plan.
Garza could pitch brilliantly for several innings, but it wouldn't matter if he let the game fall from his grasp because he could not get the third out when the breaks were not falling his way.
Which brings us back to Friday night's first inning against Toronto. Fred Lewis led off with a walk after fouling a two-strike pitch. Adam Lind fouled off a pair of two-strike pitches before drawing a walk. Vernon Wells hit a double and, before it was over, the Blue Jays had four runs.
Was it another Garza meltdown?
If so, it can now be considered a rarity.
The implosions have been so infrequent and so unexpected they now seem like flukes.
"He just wasn't able to re-gather himself," manager Joe Maddon said. "But he's been so good. Nobody is going to be perfect. Every pitcher is going to have that bad inning occasionally. It didn't bother me. Of course if he is just normal (Friday night), we have a pretty good chance of winning that game. But he wasn't. He was just a little off. He just was not comfortable."
Garza eventually made it through five innings, giving up five runs and seeing his ERA jump from 0.75 to 2.17. He failed in an attempt to become the first Rays pitcher to start the season with four consecutive victories.
"I've been in trouble more than once, but I've been able to control those innings. (Friday night), I wasn't able to control it," Garza said. "I have to tip my cap to them. They did their homework, and now I have to go back and do my homework. I'll see them again, and there will be hell to pay. Right now, they've got the leg up. That's all there is to it.
"But I'll see them again, and by the end of the season, I'll have the leg up. I'll tell you that much."
If you suggest Garza has been one of the best starters in the American League for more than two weeks, no one would argue the point. But you could suggest Garza has been one of the best starters in the AL for more than two years and have evidence to back it up.
Since the start of the 2008 season, the only pitcher in the AL to hold batters to a lower batting average than Garza is CC Sabathia. The only pitchers with lower ERAs are guys like Roy Halladay, Zack Greinke, Felix Hernandez, John Danks and Jon Lester.
In other words, Garza is more than a good pitcher. He is an elite pitcher just waiting for his record to catch up to his ability.
He hasn't picked up Cy Young votes, and his name is not frequently mentioned among the league's best half-dozen starters, but those days should be coming soon. As well as he pitched last season, he also pitched in poor luck. And pitchers with 8-12 records don't get a lot of headlines outside their home markets.
"I would argue he was one of the top 10 starters in the American League last season," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "And I expect to see him continue to pitch at the level he's been at so far this season because that's the talent he has.
"I see him today, perhaps, as being a little more focused. Focused pitch by pitch. Not getting too far ahead of himself, not worrying about what just happened. He's got the reputation of maybe being a little flaky guy, or a fiery guy, but he is very good at preparing for games; he takes it very seriously. Out of all the pitchers we have, he might be the most prepared.
"I'm not saying he's head and shoulders above, but I think some people think he just goes out there and throws his fastball as hard as he can. He takes a tremendous amount of pride in his preparation."
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com.