Garza gaining fans in all the right places

CHICAGO -- Spend a little time around Matt Garza and it’s clear that his schedule doesn’t operate the same as most.

Four days a week he is the talkative, demonstrative vocal leader of the Chicago Cubs. Then it’s his day to pitch.

Garza will take the mound for the first time Saturday against the Washington Nationals. And while he was every bit the noisy, talkative Garza on Opening Day, he will go to a different place once the sun rises Saturday morning.

“He embraces the competitive aspects of the game and doesn’t try to pretend it’s just another day,” said president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, who was in the same boat this spring as Cubs fans were last year when they were learning the nuances of the big right-hander.

“He needs his music and his time to himself, and he brings a lot to the table. He walks sort of a fine line between in control and out of control, but that works for him emotionally.”

Perhaps the biggest thing Epstein learned about the club’s talented pitcher during 6½ weeks in the desert is that there is more than meets the eye with Garza.

“I think he’s a smarter guy than you’d think from across the field,” Epstein said. “And I don’t mean that the wrong way. You watch him and how energetic and extroverted and fidgety he can be looking at him from across the field, you get a certain impression about him that maybe he’s not always thinking things through. But the reality is that he actually has a method to his madness.

“He knows himself really well, and he understands the game really well. He knows how to prepare, and I think there is a lot more going on upstairs than people give him credit for.”

On Opening Day, that was Garza on the top step of the dugout when actor/comedian Bill Murray took off on an impromptu sprint around the bases during the pregame pageantry. Garza played third-base coach waiving home Murray with a windmill motion of his arm.

Again, that was Garza up on the railing flapping his arms when Ian Stewart hit a ninth-inning triple to right field and motored into third. The run didn’t score but at least Garza was doing all he could.

And when the game was over, with the postgame clubhouse in a somber mood, Garza brought perspective when he bellowed, “Come on guys, it’s only Game 1.” He then played a reggae album at moderate volume to break the silence.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Garza is that he knows not everybody agrees with his style, but he’s probably incapable of operating any different. His act is genuine, and it doesn’t take long to be around him to realize that.

What also doesn’t take long to realize is that he has the talent to be a staff ace. Like Ryan Dempster last year, though, Garza will try to try to avoid another sluggish start to the season.

He was 2-6 midway through June last season, during a time span that also included a stint on the disabled list because of a right elbow bone contusion. In that early going he had his struggles (three starts of at least five runs allowed) and his lack of support (six starts of three earned runs or less where he got the loss or a no-decision).

He rallied to finish the season 10-10 with an impressive 3.32 ERA, but that slow start seemed to hang over him all season.

Now comes the big question for new Cubs management. Do they flip Garza off to a contender and get a return package of players to continue building the minor league system? Or do they sign him to an extension, using him as the staff ace and build a rotation around him?

Epstein gives little insight to the possibility of an extension saying only that making contract talks public “makes it harder to get something done if you create a distraction.” The fact that the season started without an extension in place seems to reduce the likelihood of it happening before next offseason, if Garza makes it that long in a Cubs uniform.

If he is dealt, though, it won’t be because the new Cubs decision makers didn’t like Garza, even if manager Dale Sveum jokingly tried to send Garza home before one spring contest. Sveum laughed as he said he was envisioning another five innings of Garza ranting and raving.

“I think when you look from the other side of the fence sometimes you get different perspectives of guys, but I always appreciated the starting pitcher that was always involved in the game the other four days he didn’t pitch,” Sveum said “He’s definitely that guy. I kind of compared him to David Cone a little bit, another guy I was around. The four days he didn’t pitch he was really involved in the game even though Cone was a little bit quieter in the clubhouse than Garza is.”

So it’s not just Garza’s schedule that is a little different, it’s his entire wavelength.