No-hitter caps growth of Tampa Bay Rays' Matt Garza

ST. PETERSBURG — For 5, 10, 15 seconds there was practically nothing. No receiving line, no tearful embraces.

Matt Garza walked into the clubhouse with David Price and James Shields following, and the rest of his teammates virtually ignoring him. He got to his locker, pulled off his cleats and then turned around to face a beer bath from a dozen or so laughing, sweating men.

In the 2,039th game in team history, a Tampa Bay pitcher had finally thrown a no-hitter.

The game was not perfect, but the night was close to it.

Twenty-seven batters, zero hits, one walk and countless memories.

It just depends on your point of view as to how you will remember the night when a high-strung, 26-year-old kept his composure as an entire stadium — and a good chunk of the Tampa Bay community — sat on the precipice of frenzy.

For those in the dugout, the view was almost eerie.

Baseball protocol declares that no one messes with a pitcher when he is throwing a no-hitter. The Rays didn't go so far as to shun Garza, but most of the players kept their distance. Price, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis were usually there to greet him with fist pumps and words of encouragement at the end of innings, but little else was said.

Shields sat next to Garza in the far end of the dugout in the first inning, and became glued to the seat as the evening went on.

"I was trying to do the same thing every single inning," Shields said. "As the night went on, I kind of knew I couldn't move. My butt was hurting all night from sitting there, but I had to do what I had to do."

In a dank room under the stadium, the view was almost comical.

Garza did not feel right from the start of the game. His mechanics were slightly off. His fastball, normally in the 93-94 mph range, was clocked at 91-92 on the stadium radar gun. His breaking pitches were not as sharp as usual.

So, between almost every inning, Garza went down the dugout steps and into the hallway that leads to the clubhouse. He walked down the corridor and up some more steps to the batting cage under the first-base bleachers.

There, with a towel in his hand to approximate the feel of a ball, he would go through his pitching motion time after time.

"I had to keep reminding myself that this is how it's supposed to feel," Garza said. "That's all I said, over and over. This is how it's supposed to feel."

Pitching coach Jim Hickey would stand with him in the batting cage and talk about minor corrections, but even he kept the conversation to a minimum after the sixth inning.

"Even if I had a really good thought, I just kept it to myself," Hickey said.

In the field, the view was flawless.

There were a handful of close calls, but the Rays defense never wavered. Evan Longoria caught a grounder behind third base in foul territory and started a 5-4-3 double play to erase the only runner in the second. Carl Crawford caught a sinking line drive by Miguel Cabrera that he momentarily lost in the lights to start the eighth.

And Ben Zobrist's third-inning play on Danny Worth's line drive will be the signature moment. The ball was destined for extra bases. The kind of opposite-field liner that covers the distance from home plate to the outfield in no time at all.

Zobrist immediately started running back, then leapt with his left arm over his head and snatched the ball out of the air. His feet hit the ground, and Zobrist did a quick tumble before jumping back up with a small slice of history in his glove.

"I felt honored to be a part of a game like that, to be able to make a good play," Zobrist said. "That's special for me. I'll always remember that I was able to play a part in that game."

From Northern California, the view had to be heartbreaking.

Garza's children were on a camping trip, and were not supposed to be in Tampa Bay on Monday. But, as late as Sunday night, Garza had implored his wife Serina to be at Tropicana Field for his start.

"I kept telling her, come today. I said, 'Are you going to show up?' She said, "No, I couldn't get a flight,' " Garza said. "She's going to be upset."

From the mound, the view was magical.

Through the day, Garza had not deviated from his routine. That included stopping at Popeye's on the way to the ballpark and buying a hefty load of fried chicken. As usual, Garza ate the first piece in the clubhouse. Then the bag was opened for everyone else.

Coming out of the dugout in the ninth, he hopped over the foul line in front of first base, kicked some dirt off the pitching rubber, and picked up the rosin bag.

Then, as he does after throwing his warmup pitches before every inning, he took his cap off and stared at the messages written on the bill. Printed neatly are the names of his children, and two phrases meant to keep him focused and in the moment.

Other than his wife and a handful of people in the clubhouse, Garza said no one knows what is written in his cap.

So what went through his mind as he stared at the messages?

"Finish it. Just finish it," Garza said. "It wasn't stress. I wasn't worried about it. I knew who I had behind me in the bullpen to finish it. I was thinking if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen.

"But if it does, this could be fun."

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

No-hitter caps growth of Tampa Bay Rays' Matt Garza 07/27/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 27, 2010 1:13pm]

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