PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. • It says a lot about how awry his spring training has gone that Cardinals lefty Jaime Garcia's best start of the month ended with by far his worst inning.
After three crisp innings against the New York Mets in an exhibition game Thursday, Garcia unraveled quickly in a 16-3 loss at Digital Domain Park. The Mets pummeled the Cardinals' second-year starter for eight runs on nine hits in the fourth inning. Most came after a fielding error prolonged the inning, and all of it sabotaged what otherwise was his finest work of the preparation season.
"He made some progress, and the results are atrocious," manager Tony La Russa said. "To his part of the blame, he left the ball up in key situations. But he did a lot of good things. He consistently made a lot of good throws. Best outing he's had."
That sums up Garcia's conflicted spring.
In his first March as an incumbent member of the rotation, Garcia has insisted he has felt good in games when the box score said otherwise. He had an improved line against Washington last week and explained how his stuff was lacking. Thursday's start offered the kind of consistency Garcia and the Cardinals have been waiting on. Then it didn't.
On a windy and tricky day to pitch, Garcia got through three innings with a relentless torrent of strikes and only one mistake, a solo homer smashed by David Wright. Then, after the error, things went sideways with two outs in the fourth. Eight consecutive Mets reached base. There wasn't a meek hit in the rally. In his past 12 innings, Garcia has allowed 28 hits and 20 runs.
"I'm not going to lie to you. It's kind of frustrating sometimes when you're trying your hardest and you try to get good results and you want to get a win for the team, and it doesn't happen," said Garcia, who has one more start before the regular season. "But the way I see it, it's spring training and it's not a lack of effort ... or because I'm walking a lot of guys. That's the good thing to take from this. All I can do is keep thinking about that and move forward. Today is over."
In Garcia's previous starts, pitching coach Dave Duncan has implored him to be more aggressive to control the count. He did that early Thursday.
Garcia worked a scoreless second inning with 11 pitches, 10 of which were strikes. Nineteen of his first 24 pitches were strikes, and he got nine outs on 39 pitches, 27 of which were strikes. Catcher Yadier Molina said opponents have been swinging earlier against a lefty they know better after a full season. Garcia was assertive with his sinker early Thursday to combat that. Two of the first five hits he allowed were on ground balls, and a third was a bloop that dropped between fielders.
In the fourth inning, the Mets' scored a run on a sacrifice fly, and with the bases emptied Garcia coaxed a ground ball to second base. Skip Schumaker booted what could have been the third out of the inning. That would have put Garcia into the fifth inning for the first time this spring.
He has yet to get an out past the fourth.
"Instead, he made a lot of bad pitches," Duncan said. "Everything they hit was fastballs up in the zone and behind in the count."
Added La Russa: "But he also showed he can make pitches down. So it's a half-full, half-empty (game). I'll take the half-full. He was definitely closer to what he really is. ... I hope he understands the progress that he made because that inning is tough to take for a guy who's a good competitor."
Garcia wondered if he became fatigued as the fourth lingered and his pitch count slogged to 78. He threw exactly as many in the fourth inning as he did in the previous three. The timing of his mistakes couldn't be ignored. After being called for a balk in the first inning, Garcia's next pitch was a misplaced change-up that Wright drove over the center-field fence. After Schumaker's error, Garcia allowed eight consecutive well-struck hits, including a three-run blast by Angel Pagan. The final out of the inning came at home plate when Matt Holliday threw out Scott Hairston, who would have been the Mets' ninth run of the inning.
"Concentration. Getting distracted," Duncan said when asked if he noticed a cause-effect slip in Garcia's composure. "We'll find out. We'll talk about it."
Said Garcia: "Every time something happens like that — a balk, something happens behind me — I try to forget about that and go to the next pitch. You don't want to keep thinking about what happened. Today I tried to do that. I've tried to learn every time."
Although the results have been bruising, Garcia has maintained that his health is unquestioned. He said he feels stronger than last season and that his stamina isn't lagging. Since only three of the 10 runs were earned Thursday, Garcia's ERA actually dropped to 7.94 for the spring. He and the Cardinals have played down the significance of such stats, preferring instead to underscore incremental progress.
Garcia has clung to this truth: Spring pitching lines are written on sand and washed away when the team leaves Florida. But a week from now, when scores count, such innings won't be so easy to dismiss.
"Every time you go out there and the results don't happen and it doesn't go your way, you've got to have that," Garcia said. "I don't come in here (to the clubhouse) and laugh about it. Obviously you care. But like I said: Spring training. Feel good. Move forward."