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Tampa Bay Rays World Series: Garza tries to maintain control

PHILADELPHIA

In the language of his chosen profession, Matt Garza was down to his last strike.

He was wild. He was out of control. Garza was still a relative newcomer to the Tampa Bay Rays, but already, the book was out on him. He was the kid with the untamable arm and the unmanageable head. It was as easy to find heat in one as the other.

Past tense, Garza was the Rays pitcher who needed to get a grip.

Present tense, he has grown up enough to be the MVP of the American League Championship Series.

Future tense, he is the pitcher who has a chance to give the Rays a lead in the World Series tonight.

How does this happen? How does a man transform from being Meltdown Matt to being Garza the Great? How does he mature over a matter of months from his own worst enemy to that of the Philadelphia Phillies'?

It is fascinating the way careers work. Sometimes, all it takes is a little maturity. Sometimes, all it takes is a little growth.

Sometimes, what it takes is a chunky catcher snarling into your face and an otherwise pleasant manager reaching the limits of his patience.

It was June, and it was time for Garza to be good or be gone.

The day before, in a game against the Texas Rangers, Garza had snapped like a slider while on the mound. At the time, Garza, 24, had only been with the Rays three months, but already it was clear that his temper was bigger than his talent. Things would go wrong, and Garza would go into a full rage, and every time, the scoreboard looked like a fireworks show.

This time, Garza had outdone himself, and catcher Dioner Navarro wasn't having anymore. Manager Joe Maddon already had met with Garza twice, once with Navarro in the room, about his tantrums. This time, Navarro took it on himself to confront the situation, and the result was not pretty.

And so it was that Garza found himself in a hotel room with Maddon and a limited number of chances remaining. Another meltdown, and the Rays were ready to proceed with Garza as a minor-leaguer.

"I had no idea which way he was going to go," Maddon says now. "I sat him down, and I really didn't know what to do. He needed to convince me that he was going to be okay, that he was going to be different, and he convinced me that day.

"After he blew up in Texas, I said, that's it, I've had enough of this. What convinced me was he said, 'I need help.' It wasn't a matter of me saying, 'You need help.' He said, 'I don't like this. I don't want to be this way. I'm having a hard time controlling this. I need help.' "

Looking back, it might have been Garza's first steps toward maturity.

After their meeting, Maddon referred Garza to sports psychology Ken Ravizza, whom he had worked with while the bench coach for the Angels. Almost immediately, the improvement began.

"It wasn't like I needed help help," Garza said. "I just needed someone who was an outlet to help me get through this, to explain a technique or a way for me to control my emotions when I'm out there. It wasn't like a head-shrink guy, like I was all messed up.

"He was just someone giving me a focus point, a way to stay calm."

If you watch Garza pitch, there are moments when you see his temper struggle to get out like a horse fighting the bit. In those moments, you will see him walk off the mound, take off his cap and stare at the reference points inside of it. His motions quicken, and Navarro will approach him, ask him what he's having for dinner, ask how his day is going. Think of it as trying to calm down David Banner before the Hulk emerges.

"I just need to reconnect," Garza said. "I tell myself, 'Relax, relax, relax.' I don't want to make a scene out there. It's still a process, but I'm making progress."

In a competitive line of work, it isn't rare for a player to cross the line. Once, the Atlanta Braves' John Smoltz needed a sports psychologist to tame his emotions.

Sometimes, it takes being shaken by the lapels for a player to finally understand.

Perhaps Garza finally has it figured out. Twice in the ALCS, Garza outpitched Boston ace Jon Lester. Once again, he looked like a budding star. Once again, the trade of Delmon Young for Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett looked like the steal of the season. Once again, you were dropping words like "command" and "control" when discussing Garza.

As for using a sports psychologist, perhaps Navarro sums it up best.

"I might get one myself," he said.

Said Maddon: "From where I sit, it's been pretty incredible what he's done this year. A lot of times, guys get better physically, but to see a guy make that kind of transition internally and emotionally is dramatic."

And as far as the confrontation with Navarro? Garza should have one more thing to say: "Thanks."

Said Maddon: "I think to this point, the most significant point of Matt's career was that day."

Perhaps today will be better. Perhaps today, the combustibility you will discuss will be his fastball. Perhaps today, the breaking point you talk about will be his slider.

Today, once again, Garza seeks to maintain control.

Tampa Bay Rays World Series: Garza tries to maintain control 10/24/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 27, 2008 4:50pm]

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