Jaime Garcia makes the Cardinals' investment in him look wise

ST. LOUIS -- There were people around baseball who were surprised last November when the St. Louis Cardinals picked up an $11.5 million option to bring back Jaime Garcia.

It seemed like a lot to spend on a pitcher who had made as many as 30 starts in his career just once, had never pitched 200 innings and seemed to miss a month on the disabled list every season. Those were the good years. Garcia also missed an entire season after elbow surgery and big chunks of time after shoulder and thoracic outlet procedures.

The Cardinals focused instead on the possibilities. Garcia has the ability to baffle hitters with unusual movement and to unplug lineups with ground ball after ground ball. On Thursday, he did both for nine extraordinary innings, pitching a one-hitter in a 7-0 Cardinals win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

The Cardinals have long felt Garcia has no-hit stuff, though he rarely throws a pitch faster than 93 mph. Thursday was the closest he had ever come to history. Domingo Santana had the lone hit, a clean line-drive single to right with two outs in the sixth. Garcia walked only one batter and struck out a career-high 13.

No Cardinals left-hander had struck out that many hitters in a game since Hall of Famer Steve Carlton struck out 16 Philadelphia Phillies when he was 25 in 1970. The movement of Garcia’s pitches is so extreme, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has said catchers find it akin to catching a knuckleball.

“You really don’t know how good he is unless you’re catching or in center field because you really don’t see how much the ball moves,” Cardinals center fielder Randal Grichuk said. “You see the hitters take not-so-comfortable hacks, a lot of checked swings, so you know they can’t pick it up. You’ve got to pick one way or the other and he can do anything to it. It’s pretty incredible.”

Matheny said he could see Garcia was dialed in as he faced Milwaukee’s second batter of the game, Scooter Gennett. Garcia fell behind Gennett 3-and-0, then got two called strikes before Gennett fouled off three straight fastballs. Garcia struck him out with an 84 mph slider.

That would prove to be the most taxing battle of the day for Garcia, who needed just 104 pitches, 72 of which were strikes.

“We’ve said it often how every time he walks out there he has the potential to throw a no-hitter. People laugh at that. They just don’t see how odd and rare his stuff is,” Matheny said.

Garcia said he wasn’t aware of his strikeout total or particularly focused on the no-hitter. He had heard of Carlton, but didn’t know much about him.

“It’s the first time I heard I had 13 strikeouts,” Garcia said when a reporter asked him about his career mark. “I don’t really pay attention. I try to focus on one pitch at a time and get ground balls. That’s my goal every time I take the mound, to get ground balls. That’s how you go deep in the game.”

The Cardinals have managed to overcome a season-opening sweep in Pittsburgh to win five of their next six games, but until Thursday they were waiting for their dominant starting pitching to show up. Before Thursday, Cardinals starters had a 5.36 ERA.

What makes their rotation so potentially devastating is its balance. You would be hard-pressed to predict who will have a better season -- the team’s ace, Adam Wainwright, or its No. 5 starter, Carlos Martinez. Garcia would get some votes, as would Michael Wacha.

Matheny said Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak consults him before major personnel moves, but he didn’t think the decision to pick up Garcia’s option generated much internal conversation or debate.

“When he’s healthy, he’s special,” Matheny said. “It’s just a matter of keeping him healthy.”