Garcia builds case with 'outstanding stuff'

June 2nd, 2021

HOUSTON --When starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. returns from his bout with right shoulder soreness, which is expected to happen later this month at the earliest, the Astros will have an intriguing decision to make. 

What to do with right-hander Luis Garcia

The Astros’ pitching rotation has gotten much healthier in the last week with Framber Valdez, Jake Odorizzi and José Urquidy all coming off the injured list and pitching well. When McCullers comes back -- and joins veteran right-hander Zack Greinke -- the Astros will have their five-man starting rotation all healthy at the same time. 

Garcia has thrown a wrench into the mix with his performance this season, including Tuesday night’s 5-1 win over the Red Sox at Minute Maid Park. He threw a career-high seven innings and gave up one run, five hits and one walk while striking out six batters to win his fourth consecutive start (4-0, 1.57 ERA).

“He’s proven he belongs in the big leagues. That’s No. 1,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “Guys have faith in him. I know the infielders told me a month ago he had outstanding stuff. We hope he has some more to give us and more improvement. He’ll pitch in the big leagues [for] a long time, barring injury.”

The Astros could move Garcia to the bullpen, where he pitched well in a short stint earlier this season. Baker said it’s too early to make any kind of projections on Garcia’s future, because a lot could happen before McCullers is ready to come back from the IL.

“We’re going to need everybody here in the rotation,” Baker said. “I remember one year in San Francisco, we had eight starters and by the All-Star break, we had like three. You just live in the present, enjoy what’s being given to us, and we’ll worry about the future later.”

Garcia has shut down the Dodgers and Red Sox in consecutive quality starts, lowering his season ERA to 2.72 in 11 games (nine starts). His 2.60 ERA through his first 10 career starts is the seventh-lowest in Astros history.

“I feel really good about it,” Garcia said. “I feel like I’m going to have that minimum mark of six innings or more every time I go out there. I want to keep improving and getting deeper into games.”

Garcia got 19 swings-and-misses from among the 56 swings taken by the Red Sox, which is the third-most by an Astros pitcher this year. He threw 68 of 106 pitches for strikes, relying mostly on a fastball-cutter-slider three-pitch mix. He got nine whiffs on the fastball and four each on the cutter and slider.

“It’s very good,” Baker said of the slider. “And then it makes his fastball look faster. His command of his secondary pitches was very important, because they’re a good-hitting club over there. He was kind of in control and in command.”

Garcia, signed for $20,000 out of Venezuela in 2017, was thrown into the fire last year having not pitched above Class A ball and has impressed. His velocity has increased since he was signed, and his slider and cutter have grown into effective big league pitches this year.

“They’ve got to be ready for 94 with a hoppy fastball, and he’s been pretty good this year at locating his pitches,” catcher Martín Maldonado said.

Garcia, 24, opened the season in the rotation because Valdez was injured, and Odorizzi -- who was signed shortly after Valdez broke a finger March 2 -- needed more time to get built up. Shortly after Odorizzi made his debut April 13, McCullers became ill, putting Garcia back in the rotation for a snowy start in Denver. He’s stayed there since.

An otherwise solid night was not without a few stumbles along the way. Garcia made two fielding gaffes Tuesday when he missed first base with his foot while trying to retire Alex Verdugo in the first and then was late covering first base in the fifth on a Danny Santana grounder that Yuli Gurriel fielded with a diving stop behind the bag.

"That could have been big in the game,” Baker said. “We’re addressing that, and he’s working on it. It’s got to be something that becomes second nature to him and you don’t even think about it.”