When he's on, Jaime Garcia has feel for tormenting hitters

ST. LOUIS -- Before every pitch, Jaime Garcia reaches down and grabs the rosin bag. He tosses it up a couple of times, then flips over his hand and bats it up in the air with the back of his wrist. He bends at the waist again and swishes his left hand around in the dirt until the stickiness blends with the dry, red dirt and gives him the feel he wants.

He’s been doing it since he was in the minor leagues, he said. Even on cold days in April or October, he catches himself doing it and wonders why.

“I started off like that because I do sweat a lot,” Garcia said. “Now, it’s just what I do before every pitch. I’m not sure why.”

There are few pitchers in the major leagues who, when they have the right feel, can be as mesmerizing to watch and as infuriating to face as Garcia. His average fastball has hovered just a half-tick above 90 mph this season, as it usually does, but some nights he can be as unhittable as a pitcher heaving the ball 100 mph. Friday was one of those nights.

With baffling movement and, in the words of manager Mike Matheny, a “wipeout” slider and changeup, Garcia struck out 11 Atlanta Braves and allowed just four baserunners over eight innings in the St. Louis Cardinals1-0 win at Busch Stadium. Sure, it was the Braves, who are 31 games under .500, but it’s not as easy to dismiss as that. The Braves might be bad, but they’re not particularly strikeout-prone. Twenty-one major league teams had struck out more than the Braves going into Friday.

“We talk about it often. When he’s right and everything’s coming out of his hand like it should, how impressive it is and how dominating it can be,” Matheny said.

It was impressive, but not so impressive that Matheny didn’t blow past Garcia’s objections and take him out of the game after 89 pitches. Matheny’s concerns were that Garcia was about to face that lineup for the fourth time of the night, that Seung Hwan Oh was going to have to get warm anyway in case Garcia got into trouble, and that Garcia had worked on short rest in his previous outings.

None of it ended up blowing up this time on Matheny, who took some flak for a couple of bullpen decisions in the previous series. Oh breezed through the ninth.

The Cardinals needed what Garcia provided. Going into Friday, Cardinals starters had failed to record an out in the sixth inning in five of the previous six games. Their bullpen, pared down by one when Matt Carpenter came off the disabled list Friday, was overworked in a surprisingly stressful series in Cincinnati. Four relievers had to work in back-to-back games Tuesday and Wednesday.

Typically, teams’ hopes rise and fall with their starting rotation’s performance. The Cardinals have been strangely immune to that truism.

Through the first 47 games of the season, the Cardinals’ rotation was shockingly bad, putting up a 4.57 ERA that ranked 19th in baseball. The team was OK anyway, going 24-23. Over the next 41 games leading up to the All-Star break, Cardinals starters had a 3.34 ERA, second in the majors. The team didn’t take advantage, going 22-19. Entering Friday, the Cardinals’ starters pitched to a 5.55 ERA since the All-Star break, 28th in the majors. The team was 11-9.

No matter how well or how poorly the Cardinals pitch, they seem to be about the same mediocre team. Perhaps they are a team that will live and die with the home run, the weapon of choice for their offense this season. They have tended to swarm bad pitching and sputter at times against elite clubs.

Of course, that is a commentary on the past and the present, but not the future. Friday was the start of the final one-third of the baseball season, the 109th game. The operative question might be: How good could the Cardinals be if their rotation performed steadily from now until the end of the season?

Adam Wainwright and Carlos Martinez are giving signs that that’s not out of the question. The other three starters have been hard to peg. Mike Leake has been struggling, Michael Wacha has been just OK, and Garcia had a 5.31 ERA since June 20.

Then came Friday. He may have had a dash of good fortune, but what ground ball pitcher doesn’t need some of that to succeed? The Cardinals turned one of their best double plays of the season to get him out of a jam in the first inning.

But Garcia was mostly just plain masterful in a start reminiscent of his April 14 outing against the Milwaukee Brewers in which he struck out 13 batters and allowed just one hit in nine innings. After the Braves got runners on the corners with nobody out in the top of the fourth, Garcia struck out Freddie Freeman and Kemp -- hitters who had hit him well in the past -- to defuse the rally.

And on a night when the Cardinals were generally overmatched by Atlanta’s pitching, Garcia drove in the only run of the game with a second-inning single to right field. He allowed no runs and drove in his team’s only run.

“I don’t think I ever did that in high school,” Garcia said. “I’m pretty sure I did it a couple of times in Little League.”