TAMPA — To Michael Garza, understanding his older brother is like peeling an onion with a lot of layers.
There's the Matt Garza you see on the mound, the 2008 ALCS MVP with electric stuff that has Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey saying the right-hander can be a perennial Cy Young Award contender.
Peel another layer and you see a big kid who laughs at That 70's Show in the clubhouse, plays video games into the night and coaches his son's soccer team.
But peel off Garza's hat and you'll find what drives him every day. Written inside are the initials of his three children (Matthew, 7; Sierra, 4; and Savannah, 5 months). Matthew, born just after Garza's senior year at high school, is what stopped him from quitting baseball during his freshmen struggles at Fresno State.
They're why Garza, 26, overhauled his offseason conditioning program, showing up in camp in the best shape of his career. And they're whom he thinks about when he's in tough spots on the mound; he'll step off, stare at the inside of his cap and wonder what his son would tell him to do.
"I think every pitch he throws, it's for his kids," said Garza's father, Rudy. "What's holding him there now is his kids."
When Rudy, an Army sergeant major back from a one-year stint in Kuwait, brings Matthew to Port Charlotte on Monday for a weeklong visit, the reunion could serve as a reminder of how Garza got here. Garza said it was his father — who worked in the fields before spending 32 years in the military — who instilled his work ethic and love of baseball. And it was Matthew who kept Garza in the game when he considered giving up in 2003.
Garza was 1-6 with a 9.55 ERA for Fresno State and said he was ready to pursue a career in civil engineering.
"Midway through the year, mentally and physically, everything broke down," said Garza, a Selma, Calif., native. "I wasn't the top guy anymore, I was probably the worst freshman in Fresno State history. I couldn't get anybody out. I almost quit, almost turned in my spikes. Then, after one game, I came out and saw my son smile. And my whole perspective changed. I wasn't just playing for me anymore."
Garza went on to star at Fresno State and became a first-round pick of the Twins in 2005 before blossoming with the Rays. He set career bests in starts (32), innings (203) and strikeouts (189) last year, but partly due to the league's lowest run support, he was 8-12. "He could have pitched exactly the same way that he pitched and won 15, 16 or 17 ball games," Hickey said.
Garza isn't satisfied and wants to cut down on his career-high 79 walks, part of which he attributed to how he felt physically.
So he changed his diet and stepped up his offseason program, working out 5-6 hours a day, taking yoga and spin classes and surrounding himself with minor-leaguers who pushed him. "I feel stronger and healthier and in better shape than I've ever been," Garza said.
After workouts, Garza kept busy while coaching Matthew's soccer team. "He lives for his kids," said Michael, 23. "You can just see the joy they bring him."
Garza wants to pitch for 10-12 more years. By then, teammates and coaches say he could be among the game's elite.
"Every time he goes out, this guy is electric," Rays right-hander James Shields said. "As far as I'm concerned, he's got the best stuff in the big leagues, hands down. And I think with his work ethic and patience, he's going to become one of the best pitchers in the big leagues."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]es.com.