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Take a breath: Garza's new mental approach

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

PHILADELPHIA – Watch his breathing. If Matt Garza gets squeezed by the home-plate umpire in Game 3 of the World Series, he will unleash a big, violent, angry breath. And then about 15 seconds later, when he has composed himself, taken the sign from his catcher and committed to his next pitch, he will let out another purposeful exhalation, this one slow and steady.

This is the trusting breath, and it personifies Garza's year – how he has learned to trust himself and his gifted arm, and how the Tampa Bay Rays have learned to entrust in him the biggest game of their season.

The breathing techniques are one of many tricks espoused by Ken Ravizza, a doctor of kinesiology whose knack for motivating athletes has turned him into a sought-after sports psychologist. Ravizza's longtime friendship with Rays manager Joe Maddon led him to Garza, a wildly talented right-handed pitcher and mercurial spirit whose mental blowups were the only barrier to greatness.

Since beginning to work with Ravizza in the middle of June, Garza has been among the best pitchers in the American League with a 3.34 earned run average. And never was he better than last week, when he sent the Rays to the World Series with a brilliant performance in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series, during which he pitched seven innings and yielded only a first-inning home run to Dustin Pedroia that, in the past, would have waylaid him.

"You're going to make a lot of mistakes," Garza said. "Bear with it. Analyze it first, and then react. Don't react, then analyze."

Deep, huh? That's what happens to athletes who work with Ravizza. He is an unflinchingly positive 60-year-old, impossible to dislike, always apologetic for offering tips that sound cheesy but have continued to work for the 30 years he has consulted professional and college teams.

Like one of his nuggets to Garza. Let go. Focus on the catcher's mitt. Become absorbed with it.

"You live in the mitt," Ravizza said.

No, that isn't something chanting "ohmmm" in the background. Though Ravizza's techniques seem rooted on Eastern philosophy, they're more utilitarian and pragmatic than anything else. He doesn't, for example, believe in the mythical area other sports psychologists like to espouse, The Zone. So few athletes reach it, and for such a short period of time, it's not worth the effort spent trying to locate it.

Instead, Ravizza tries to prepare his students for situations they'll encounter regularly. Like, how to handle a disagreement with a teammate.

This, Ravizza said, was Garza's "teachable moment." During Garza's start in Texas on June 8, he and catcher Dioner Navarro shoved each other in the dugout after a testy exchange on the mound. When the Rays traded for Garza over the winter, Maddon had asked those who knew him why Minnesota so readily got rid of a 24-year-old who throws 97 mph with a top-of-the-line curveball. Easy: He simply was too unstable.

Maddon couldn't deal with that Garza, so he called Ravizza, whom he met more than 20 years earlier as a coach with the California Angels. The two struck up a deep friendship. Ravizza calls Maddon "The Professor" and invites him to speak with his classes every offseason. Last year, they broke down "Blink," the Malcolm Gladwell book about the brain's ability to make a decision without thinking.

When Maddon mentioned Ravizza's name to Garza later that week, it sounded familiar. He had read Ravizza's book, "Heads-Up Baseball," in college at Fresno State. An in-person tutorial would help Garza even more, so Ravizza flew to St. Petersburg, Fla., for a one-on-one session.

In that first meeting, they learned about each other, what drives and motivates them, and laid out core areas in which Garza wanted to better himself. First, and most important, was maintaining the perspective that Garza allowed to mushroom in the middle of games.

"Every pitch is not the end of the world," he said. "I was taking for granted what I did. So, they hit a great pitch? Well, they're major leaguers for a reason. That's going to happen. If they weren't any good, why would they be here?

"I needed it not only on the baseball field but in life. Not to let the situation control me; for me to control the situation. It works in any aspect of life. Driving, people get road rage. In arguments, people get really flustered really quick."

Quickly, too, the work paid dividends. Mistakes were mistakes. They happen. More important was taking things pitch by pitch. Trite though it may be, the idea worked for Garza.

"It's not like an elite-level athlete is messed up and we're going to fix him," Ravizza said. "It's about what it takes to be great. The mental game is such a big part of it; you have to develop it like the physical game.

"It's not about feeling great. It's about learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable. You're going to be uncomfortable. You're going to feel pressure. If you think you're going to be relaxed and mellow, you're kidding yourself. The difference is embracing it."

Garza did, like so many others. Ravizza worked with Rays reliever Troy Percival in his transition from position player to pitcher, with Jim Abbott as he ascended to an incredible major-league career, with the U.S. men's volleyball team, which won a gold medal in this year's Olympics after its coach suffered through the murder of his father-in-law at the beginning of the games.

And he also helped another baseball player transition from the 25-person crowds of junior-college baseball to the pressure of Division I and beyond.

"He makes the things he says and believes in real," said Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, who worked with Ravizza when playing at Long Beach State. "It's not just this whole hoopla about some kind of theory somebody has, and you can't believe it because you don't believe that person believes it. He really is passionate about his work, and you kind of get into it when you hear him talk."

"It's something if you believe in, it's gonna work. For (Garza), obviously, he's really believed in it, and it has helped him tremendously."

Garza embraced Ravizza's ideas so much he and Maddon concocted an idea to help reinforce them. On the underside of his cap's brim, he wrote about 15 words. Whenever he gets a new hat, as he did for the postseason, he'll write them in the same place, the same way, with the same silver-colored pen. They are cues and phrases to remind him who he is, why he's here, how he can be the new Garza, the one he likes so much more.

Only three people know what Garza writes: himself, his fiancée, Serina Ortiz, and Ravizza.

"It's our secret," Garza said. "That's who I trust."

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