It was during instructional league play in the fall of 2014. A right-hander for the Boston Red Sox organization pitched a couple of times against the Orioles. He faced 18 hitters and struck out 14 of them. His fastball looked impressive and overpowering, and his hit list included Chance Sisco, Christian Walker and Chris Davis.
A few months later the Orioles would acquire that right-hander. It was Jason Garcia. They technically acquired him in a trade with Houston for cash. Houston took him fourth overall in the Rule 5 draft from the Red Sox.
The pitcher who touched 98 mph against the O’s that fall and 100 mph when he moved to the bullpen late in the 2014 season was now an Oriole.
And, after the Orioles managed to hang onto Garcia for his entire Rule 5 season, they hope to reap the benefits of that well into the future. That kid with the good arm can now pitch in the minors to try to hone his craft and begin to work his way back to Baltimore.
Garcia pitched to an ERA of 4.25 in 21 games for the Orioles last year. That was respectable enough. But in August and September, his ERA was 2.81 and he fanned 14 over 16 innings.
Garcia was recently optioned to Double-A Bowie from major league spring training camp and he is expected to begin the year in the Baysox’s starting rotation.
What was manager Buck Showalter’s message when they sent him out?
“Just stay in attack mode and just work my way back up,” Garcia told me last week at the Buck O’Neil Baseball Complex at Twins Lakes Park, the home of the O’s minor league clubs. “Trust my stuff and try to help the team. He is putting a lot of trust in me and expecting a lot. So I’m kind of excited.”
Garcia came a long way last year when you consider he spent time on a major league roster after never having pitched above low Single-A ball. He basically went from the equivalent of Single-A Delmarva to Baltimore, in effect skipping Single-A Frederick, Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk on the way.
What an education about the game he must have gotten sitting in the bullpen next to veterans like Darren O’Day and Zach Britton. Then by the end of the year, he was getting out some good big league hitters.
“Confidence was the biggest thing,” he said of his solid end to the 2015 season. “Just trusting my stuff and realizing I belonged and just going out there and competing.”
So what was that Rule 5 experience like?
“A dream come true,” Garcia said. “To play at the highest level, that is what we all dream about. Now it’s getting back up and staying up.”
Pitching as a starter again could really help Garcia. For one, he can now work on pitch development, getting the needed reps to work on all his pitches. And he provides an option to the Orioles as both a starter and reliever.
Garcia has a few specific ways in mind that being a starting pitcher will help him.
“Just being more consistent with my fastball,” he said. “Working on lefty hitters last year, I kind of struggled with that. I know most of my walks were to left-handers. That is something this spring I’ve been working on a lot. And just overall command. Trust and confidence. Everything.”
Garcia is sure right about his walks against lefty batters. He walked 12 last year in the majors in 47 plate appearances (for an on-base percentage of .449). He walked just five right-handed batters in 82 plate appearances (for an on-base percentage of .265). Now he has time to try to improve that stat.
There had to be a lot to the process of learning how to a major leaguer for Garica last year, both on and off the field as a Rule 5 pick.
“I’m still every day seeing a little more of what I’ve learned,” he said. “It is kind of cool to see everything that happened. Looking back on last year, I learned so much and maybe didn’t even realize it. Now kind of seeing how I can use that and take in as much as possible. I always want to be a student of the game.”
Garcia said getting that first victory (and his only win) in August against Oakland was special and finishing up pitching well provided him with a big lift.
“Just knowing the way I kind of finished last year (provides confidence),” he said. “This spring has gone well so far. Having that in the back of my mind, I know I can compete at that level. Getting my first win, that was huge. Especially being in the bullpen, I didn’t know I’d get one. That was really special.”