JUPITER, Fla — Left-hander Jaime Garcia finished his bullpen session with a flourish and embraced catcher Yadier Molina midway between the mound and plate. It obviously feels good to be back. And St. Louis Cardinals know how much better they are with Garcia back, and feeling healthy.
"All I can tell you is that I feel good," Garcia said. "One step at a time."
Garcia finished with a 2.70 ERA over 28 starts as a rookie in 2010, and has a 3.45 ERA in 90 career starts, along with 447 strikeouts in 551 innings. Before getting hurt, he was one of the better young lefties in the league. He made only nine starts in 2013 before having surgery on his left shoulder to repair a torn labrum.
That the Cardinals made the World Series anyway speaks to their organizational depth. General manager John Mozeliak had other pitchers standing by to do the job, but the Cardinals never found a replacement lefty to give opponents a different look. St. Louis has a lot of pitching depth again in 2014 — maybe more than they'll need — but a healthy Garcia gives their rotation an added dimension.
Mozeliak watched Garcia's third bullpen session Tuesday and continued to be impressed.
"I’m very excited about where he is," Mozeliak said. "We went into the offseason believing he was going to have a regular offseason, as if he wasn't coming off surgery. I think a lot of people were questioning that. Based on how he’s throwing early on, we’re excited."
The Cardinals added infielder Jhonny Peralta and traded for outfielder Peter Bourjos this winter, but their best move might be activating Garcia from the disabled list in November.
Garcia had surgery in May and tried to rehab fast enough to return before the World Series ended — he just ran out of season. Still, putting pedal to the metal during the rehab process was good for him. It gave him a goal that wasn't so remote.
"I was trying," Garcia said. "It was only 4 1/2 months, though. Making a return from shoulder surgery wasn’t realistic physically, but mentally it helped me stay focused and continue to work hard every day."
Once the playoffs came, it was tough for him to stay on the bench, but Garcia made the most of it.
"It was hard not to be out there," Garcia said. "Whether I was close or not to returning, it was the same feeling because I was getting paid to go out there and not pitch, you know? At the same time, I was grateful that this team was in the playoffs. Maybe I wasn't playing but still being on the bench, to be able to root for the guys, it was something."
Garcia is being smarter about his body than he used to be. He decided to try and pitch through shoulder pain during the 2012 playoffs against the Nationals, lasting only two innings in his start. He angered teammates by hiding the injury and later opted against having surgery that winter. And then his 2013 season ended abruptly leading, finally, to surgery.
"I admire that he tried to pitch," Mozeliak. "I feel better than he had it addressed."
Garcia said he'll try to be even smarter going forward.
"Once you have surgery, that means your shoulder’s never going to be the same as before," Garcia said. "You’ve got to stay on top of it so it doesn’t become an injury again. The work you do between starts, the preparation you do before the bullpens and then after, you’ve got to stay on top of it. You can’t get lazy with that."
Garcia's return is going well. But he's not getting too excited about it yet.
"It’s just another bullpen and another day of spring training," Garcia said. "I'll be trying to come back tomorrow and get more work done."
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