ST. PETERSBURG — Matt Garza said he loves the stage.
The Rays right-hander likes being doubted and counted out, much like his team was entering Game 7 of the American League Championship Series on Sunday.
But with the Rays having lost two straight games and on the verge of a crushing end to a remarkable season, Garza delivered arguably the best performance of his career.
Garza went seven strong innings, giving up just one run and two hits in outdueling Red Sox starter Jon Lester for the second time in the series. Before his Game 3 start Monday, Garza said he was stung by the fact Lester was getting all the hype — "on centerstage" — while he was in the "backdrop."
But on Sunday, Garza was the one that — after getting pulled in the eighth — was tipping his cap to a sellout Tropicana Field crowd giving him a rousing standing ovation. And there he stood, on the stage in centerfield, accepting the ALCS MVP trophy. There he stood, in the clubhouse, getting drenched with champagne, saying the moment was "indescribable."
"You dream about this as a kid, on the mound, Game 7, World Series, all the chips are on the line," Garza, 24, said. "You just have to seize the moment."
Garza, acquired from the Twins with shortstop Jason Bartlett in the offseason trade of Delmon Young, said he has matured a lot since his heated exchange with catcher Dioner Navarro in June in Texas.
"On the biggest stage of his life, he came up with one of the biggest games of his life," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "He's got a chance to be a perennial Cy Young Award type of (pitcher). The stuff is just off the charts, and his composure has come along great."
All of that came in handy in Sunday's start, which started with a hitch. In the first inning, Garza gave up a solo homer to Dustin Pedroia that gave the Red Sox a 1-0 lead. Garza settled in from there, retiring the Sox in order in three of the next four innings.
"He showed everyone what he was made of," fellow Rays pitcher James Shields said. "He's made of heart. He's made of guts. I can't tell you how proud I was of him."
In the seventh, Garza proved his mettle. Garza walked J.D. Drew with one out, then gave up a single to Jason Bay. Manager Joe Maddon made a quick visit to the mound, leaving the hard-throwing right-hander in to get himself out of that jam, which he did, getting Mark Kotsay to fly out and striking out Jason Varitek.
"He asked me if I was tired, and I said, 'Hell no, and you're not taking me out anyway,' " Garza said. "He said, 'Your stuff is good, I'll see you later.' I said, 'See ya later.' "
See you, in the World Series.