Confident Garcia ready to step up again

March 27th, 2022

JUPITER, Fla. -- Right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. is not expected to be ready for Opening Day because of a flexor tendon injury. In McCullers’ place, the Astros are hoping that right-hander Luis Garcia will continue to fill the void left by McCullers, like he did during last year’s postseason.

Garcia, 25, made his spring debut on Sunday afternoon at Roger Dean Stadium and was solid, pitching two shutout innings and striking out three batters in a 4-3 victory over the Marlins. Garcia threw 35 pitches, 20 of them for strikes. He was able to throw all of his pitches -- fastball, cutter, slider and changeup -- in the game. His fastball was clocked as high as 94.6 mph.

“I feel great. I was trying to throw strikes today, and it was OK,” Garcia said. “I didn’t have an issue with my velocity today. It was like normal, so I’m OK.”

But manager Dusty Baker was impressed with Garcia’s slider during the two innings. Baker was surprised by the command that he had with the pitch.

“He was good. I was impressed with his first time out,” Baker said. “As long as he feels good, as long as he is in shape, then everything is fine.”

Astros catcher Martín Maldonado predicts there will be more great outings from Garcia, who has to continue to throw strikes.

“He is going to have a good year. He works hard. He believes in what he has. It’s a matter of ... building him up. When he gets there, he’ll be ready to go,” Maldonado said.

Garcia became known as a money player when he started a bullpen game against the Rays in Game 5 of the 2020 American League Championship Series. He pitched two shutout innings and helped Houston win the game, 4-3, to close the deficit to 3-2 in the seven-game series. The Astros ended up losing the series in Game 7.

“He showed what he could do for this club. After that day, he earned my respect,” Maldonado said.

Then Garcia took it to another level last year. When the Astros needed their starting rotation to step up in a big way following the injury to McCullers, Garcia came through in the clincher against the Red Sox in Game 6 of the ALCS. He held the Red Sox scoreless for 5 2/3 innings before Houston advanced to the World Series.

Baker took the word of his people in the organization to use Garcia as a starter, and it worked.

“He wasn’t overwhelmed or fazed by anybody or any situation, which is huge for a young guy,” Baker said. “It helped we had guys like McCullers [on the roster]. Garcia is a special guy.”

Garcia expects the confidence he had during the postseason to carry over into 2022. The goal is to throw more innings than he did last year (155 1/3), which was the most he ever pitched in his professional career. Garcia is slated to be ready to go by Opening Week, which starts on April 7.

"The confidence that I had last year -- since the game against Boston -- ... I have the confidence right now,” Garcia said. “I think I’ll be really good this year. That’s what I want to do.”

Worth noting 
• Outfielder Yordan Alvarez was scheduled to be in the starting lineup against the Marlins on Sunday, but he was scratched for personal reasons. Baker, who is hoping to see Alvarez on Monday, doesn’t know if the absence will keep him out for a long period of time. 

Jeremy Peña continues to impress Baker at shortstop, and he had two more hits on Sunday to raise his batting average to .375. It helped that he played winter ball before showing up to Spring Training with the Astros. 

“The young man is playing [well],” Baker said. “He just came out of winter ball, so he is probably further ahead than some of the guys that are here. I’m not going to put any pressure on him. Just go out and play.”