A change of pace upends Cubs' Garza

Matt Garza was supposed to be a guy you can build a rotation around and now he’s been crushed in back-to-back starts when the Chicago Cubs desperately needed a solid outing.

Not only that, but his issues throwing to first base clearly have not gone away despite recent work to rectify the problem.

Garza put bookends on a brutal road trip when he gave up six runs (five earned) on seven hits and a walk in five innings Sunday in a 10-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates. That one unearned run is misleading since it was Garza’s own error in the first inning that put a runner on board before Pedro Alvarez crushed a three-run home run.

Garza got the road trip off to a rough start Monday at Houston when all seven hitters that reached base against him scored in the first three innings.

“The last couple have been frustrating but you have to keep going and keep grinding,” Garza told reporters in Pittsburgh, including an ESPN 1000 correspondent. “I’m going to keep going at it. There is nothing else I can do. Just keep going every day going hard and grinding it out. It’s going to turn. It’s gotta turn.”

Recent reports have indicated that talks between the Cubs and Garza on a contract extension have been going well. The Cubs view Garza as a staff ace for the long term and if Jeff Samardzija continues to impress as a starter they have a formidable 1-2 punch heading forward.

But Garza’s recent performances, as well as his issues throwing to first base, have raised a red flag. He continues to fall behind in counts and then get beat when he comes back into the strike zone. On Sunday it was his changeup that failed him.

“He was getting beat by pitches he shouldn’t be throwing people, really,” manager Dale Sveum said, “He was getting beat by is fourth best pitch and he had a great fastball today. I don’t know why he wanted to use those pitches but it came back to haunt him, that’s for sure.”

It was offspeed stuff that did in Garza at Houston as well.

“I’ll have to talk to him again,” Sveum said. “He got into a situation against a couple of guys where velocity gets them. He decided to throw changeups. It’s not exactly protocol or what the game plan was. It’s unfortunate. They hit them out of the ballpark. A lot of times they will roll over on them too but that’s the way things are going.”

Garza did go 12 days between outings at the start of the month because of a bout with the flu, but he has insisted that any effects from being sidelined are long gone.

Pitchers that aspire to be staff aces at the very least have to be stoppers capable of halting a losing streak in its tracks. Over the last six games, though, every Cubs starter but Garza has pitched well enough to be a stopper if the offense offered a little help.

“Every time I go out there I play for the W,” Garza said. “You don’t say ‘Hey, come on offense.’ My first job is to keep runs off the board and putting a three spot up there in the first inning doesn’t help anybody. All it does is build pressure and guys have to do stuff. Then we get uncomfortable and get out of our comfort zone and do stuff we’re not used to doing.”

There is still no reason to think Garza can’t get back on track quickly. He had a rough outing in April when he gave up six runs to the Miami Marlins and rebounded with four consecutive solid outings. To Sveum, Sunday’s problems were clear.

“Both times, you figure, especially with a lineup that has been struggling like ours, you thought he would go right through them,” Sveum said. “To me it was just two pitches. You were getting beat by your fourth pitch. It wasn’t about his stuff or his location today. He had his good fastball and his good slider today but ended up getting beat by his fourth pitch.”

The Cubs haven’t lost faith in their right-hander, but as his obvious mental block with throwing to first base has shown, a baseball player’s psyche can be fragile at times. With the team’s losing streak now at 12 games, these are tough times and Garza has been around long enough that he needs to provide a young group some stability.

The Cubs are interested in making their relationship with Garza a long one, but his last two starts have created plenty of head scratching.

“I have to get right, get right quick and get ready for San Francisco in the next six days,” said Garza, who next pitches in the Bay Area on Saturday.