ATLANTA -- Freddy Garcia had been playing baseball ever since he was 2 years old, but in his early teenage years he was spending more time working as a caddie at a local golf course than dreaming of joining the growing stream of young talent being signed out of Venezuela to play professional baseball in the United States. That changed when he noticed how many former opponents from his old neighborhood were beginning to draw the attention of teams and scouts.
"I played baseball during the weekend, but I started getting interested when I saw a couple guys older than me signing, and I knew I was better than them when we played each other," Garcia said. "I was like, 'This guy signed, I can sign, too.' I was better than them."
Since first entering the Majors in 1999 with the Mariners, Garcia has seen the game grow immeasurably in his home country on his way to becoming the winningest Venezuelan pitcher in Major League history. The pipeline to the big leagues for today's Latin American talent is much more sophisticated than it was when Garcia inked a deal with the Houston Astros in 1993, following in the footsteps of Venezuelan stars such as Bobby Abreu, Carlos Guillen and Johan Santana.
"Back then, they didn't have many players," Garcia said. "Now they have more opportunities to play baseball, more places, more academies. They have a lot of stuff. They have more scouting. In Venezuela, they have more people now to go there and see players. They have a lot of places to work guys out and sign them there."
That added infrastructure can streamline the scouting and development process, according to Garcia, who became the 42nd Venezuelan pitcher to reach the big leagues when he made his debut on April 7, 1999. Since then, 83 additional Venezuelans have taken the mound in the Majors.
"Now they go to your house and ask you if you want to play baseball," he said. "Back then, you had to find a way to play. Now, if you have good size, you cannot even know how to play baseball, they go and get you because you have a good body, good height, whatever. They're like, 'OK, you can be a pitcher.'"
With his sturdy 6-foot-4 frame, Garcia would likely have been pulled away from the golf course much earlier if he was growing up in Venezuela today, even without his deep baseball roots. His power took the American League by storm in his early years with the Mariners, as he finished second to Carlos Beltran in the 1999 AL Rookie of the Year voting and led the Mariners to the ALCS the following two seasons. One season after being traded to the White Sox in 2004, he pitched seven shutout innings in the decisive Game 4 of the World Series.
"When he was with the Mariners, he was like Felix Hernandez right now," said reliever Luis Avilan, Garcia's teammate and countryman. "Plus, he played with my favorite team in Venezuela [Navegantes del Magallanes], so when I grew up, I was watching him pitch."
In addition to his 156 career victories -- a mark Hernandez is closing in on -- Garcia's 2,264 big league innings are the most of any Venezuelan pitcher. Santana is the only other Venezuelan pitcher with at least 2,000 innings.
Throughout his 15-year career with stops at seven different clubs, Garcia has reinvented himself as his velocity waned and injuries took their toll. After being sent down by the Orioles in late June, Garcia toiled in Triple-A before the Braves acquired him from Baltimore for cash considerations in August and brought him up to join the bullpen as a long reliever at the beginning of September roster expansions.
After three appearances out of the bullpen, Garcia has dazzled in his three turns as a member of the rotation, posting a 1.83 ERA with 16 strikeouts in 19 2/3 innings and commanding the attention of his new teammates and coaches.
"He never throws the ball down the middle of the plate, and he pitches with his eyes," manager Fredi Gonzalez said after Garcia's most recent outing, 6 2/3 solid innings in the Braves' 3-2 win over the Brewers on Tuesday. "He knows how to change speeds. He'll throw any pitch at any time, he's got that confidence in himself to do that. It's just the way he pitches."
As Major League Baseball celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month, Garcia and Avilan find themselves in key roles for a Braves team pushing for the best record in the National League and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Avilan has been a staple of the Braves' bullpen all season, emerging as the top lefty when Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters were lost to Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery early in the campaign.
Separated by 12 years in age, the two pitchers also represent the growth the game has enjoyed in Venezuela and other Latin American countries in a short span of time, as teams scour the region for talent.
"I remember when I signed my contract with the Braves in 2005, it was different," Avilan said. "You couldn't see that many guys signing a big league contract and stuff like that. It's different now. If you go down there, you're going to see a lot of guys signing with big bonuses and stuff like that."
"Guys sign, they're already making millions, and they haven't even played in the big leagues," Garcia said. "That's good for the players, they make more money, so it's easier now than it used to be."
While Avilan's place on the playoff roster is secure, Garcia awaits word on his postseason status after forcing himself into the discussion of the Braves' plans for their potential Game 4 starter. He and lefty Paul Maholm each turned in quality starts in their final outings of the regular season, leaving Gonzalez with a decision to make.
"I've been there before, I've done it, so hopefully I get a shot this year," Garcia said. "I was in Triple-A, got traded here, got a shot to finish the year in the big leagues. It'd be nice if it happened."
Eric Single is an associate reporter for MLB.com.