PITTSBURGH – The Cubs hoped Matt Garza’s return would be like a shaving-cream pie to the face, a Red Bull jolt of energy to a team that knows the front office won’t hesitate to blow it all up at the trade deadline.
The Cubs also hoped Garza’s presence would be like the soothing Bob Marley jams he likes to play on the clubhouse stereo, relaxing the defense by working fast and throwing strikes and taking pressure off the rest of the pitching staff.
Yes, the Cubs feel conflicted about Garza, a classic win-now player in an organization with a long-range plan that revolves around a magic Jumbotron at the renovated Wrigley Field.
In his first major-league start in 10 months, Garza took a no-hitter into the fifth inning at PNC Park, but it still looked like the same old Cubs in Tuesday night’s 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Cubs (18-26) will definitely be sellers if they can’t fix a bullpen that’s now blown 10 saves. Another meltdown wasted Garza’s five scoreless innings, the type of performance that will have the contenders calling between now and the July 31 trade deadline.
“I was a little disappointed that I didn’t take it deeper,” Garza said afterward. “I don’t like coming out in the fifth. It’s not what I train for. That’s not what I strive to do, but it is what it is. It felt great getting back out there, but it sucks the way it ended. I felt I could have kept going, but I’m just following the program they got me on.
“Hopefully, the next time out, the leash is off and I can just keep going.”
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The last time the scouts saw Garza in The Show, he walked off the mound at Busch Stadium after striking out St. Louis Cardinals slugger Matt Holliday with a 96 mph fastball.
While the first reaction on July 21 last year was that Garza had been traded (Texas Rangers?), he would ultimately be shut down with a stress reaction in his right elbow. After impressing the staff by rehabbing and getting into superior physical shape, he strained a lat muscle on his left side while throwing live batting practice during the team’s first full-squad workout in February.
Manager Dale Sveum was half-right calling it before the game: The first inning’s going to be key.
“We all know Garza,” Sveum said. “If he’s efficient and has a nice first inning, I think he’ll be able to relax and calm down a little bit. There’s no question in all of our minds that he’s going to be pumped up out there.”
After four rehab starts in the minors, the Cubs projected Garza would throw 85-to-90 pitches. He ran out of the dugout, clicked his heels as he crossed the first-base line, kicked the dirt around the pitcher’s mound and bounced the rosin bag off his hand. He wiped the sweat from his face on an 85-degree night.
Pittsburgh leadoff man Jose Tabata stared at a 92 mph fastball for a called strike, and Sveum got good reports on Garza’s velocity, which hovered around 93-94 mph. Between that and the “wipeout slider,” Garza struck out five of the first 10 batters he faced, retiring eight in a row at one point and not giving up a hit until Clint Barmes singled into right-center field with one out in the fifth inning.
But a resilient Pirates team (27-18) kept fouling off pitches, and Garza needed 82 of them to get through five innings. He couldn’t talk his way out of this one.
“You think they’re going to take me out without a fight?” Garza said with a laugh. “I don’t train to (say): ‘Hey, you know, pitching would be cool, whatever.’ It was more like: ‘What the…? Dude, what the…?’ (They said): ‘Well, it’s your first one back and we don’t want to overdo it.’ It’s a smart move on their part.”
In the sixth inning, Rule 5 pitcher Hector Rondon gave up a leadoff double to Neil Walker, who later scored when lefty James Russell walked Pedro Alvarez with the bases loaded. Moments later, pinch-hitter Travis Snider crushed Shawn Camp’s changeup for a grand slam.
“That was on me,” said Camp, perhaps the team’s most reliable reliever in 2012, who now has a 7.56 ERA and three blown saves. “Sometimes you go in these ruts and you just got to get your way out of them.”
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Garza stubbornly believes the Cubs are going to get out of the rut, once again insisting “it’s gonna turn.” But as he eases his way back into the rotation, there’s a real sense of urgency now as he’s making $10.25 million in his final season before free agency.
There are so many questions still unanswered: Do you commit long-term to a pitcher with this medical history? Can you afford to miss another chance to sell high in the middle of a pennant race? Do you play it out, make a qualifying offer and at least get the draft-pick compensation? And at a certain point in this rebuilding project, aren’t you going to need some big-game guys, not more no-name prospects?
“You can’t have enough quality starting pitching,” Sveum said. “You always want an arm like Garza’s in your rotation at any point. … To have (guys with) no-hitter-type stuff going out there is always a nice asset.”