LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — One month after signing a minor-league contract with no intention of pitching in the minors, Freddy Garcia began his bid for the Braves’ fifth-starter spot by retiring all six batters he faced Wednesday in a 5-4 loss against the Tigers to open Grapefruit League play.
The veteran right-hander had two strikeouts and three groundouts, and threw 18 strikes in 24 pitches.
“I need to pitch good to make this team,” said Garcia, 37. “Throw strikes and put some zeroes on the board…. I’m not going to take any start for granted. Throw strikes and try to pitch the best I can in spring training.”
When the Braves faced elimination in a 2013 Division Series at Dodger Stadium, they turned to Garcia to start Game 4. He allowed two runs and eight hits in six innings and was in line for win against Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw before Juan Uribe’s two-run homer off reliever David Carpenter in the eighth.
Garcia had spent more than half the season with the Orioles’ Triple-A team. The Braves got him for late-season depth and he posted a 1.65 ERA in six September games including three starts, allowing two runs or fewer in six innings or more in each start. Now he aims to convince that he can do more of the same as a member of the rotation.
Wednesday was a good first step.
“The Chief did a nice job,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, referring to Garcia by his nickname. “If some of the young guys are watching him pitch, here’s a guy that’s throwing probably 86, 84, 87 (mph). He didn’t walk anybody, went 1-2-3-4-5-6, he didn’t get himself in trouble at all.”
Catcher Evan Gattis had a two-out, run-scoring double and second baseman Dan Uggla went 2-for-2 with an RBI for the Braves, who led 5-4 before non-roster invitee Shae Simmons gave up two runs on three hits in the ninth for a blown save and the loss. The game was called due to rain with two out in the bottom of the ninth.
A regular-season game in the same scenario would’ve been delayed or suspended and completed later.
“Same old Freddy; it was awesome,” said Gattis, now the team’s starting catcher after Brian McCann left as a free agent. “Command of pitches — command of all of them — and he’s a competitor. It’s not an easy at-bat (against him).”
Uggla said, “I thought he looked great. That’s one thing about Big Chief, man, he’s going to come in and make pitches and never panic. He’s been in so many big games. I know this is spring training, but he came in and got his work in and I thought he competed great today.”
Garcia’s primary competition for fifth starter is talented young left-hander Alex Wood, and rookie David Hale is also getting stretched out as a starter in major league camp. Garcia has an opt-out clause in his contract, allowing him to become a free agent if he’s not added to the major league roster by March 25.
He’s made it clear that he’d be willing to go to the bullpen, but not back to the minor leagues. If he doesn’t make Atlanta’s opening day roster, he plans to go home unless another team wants him. Garcia hopes it doesn’t come to that.
He wants to pitch for the Braves.
“There’s one thing you know about him, he’s going to go out and compete,” Uggla said. “Everybody knows he doesn’t have the stuff he used to have, but he knows how to compete. He’s got what you want in a pitcher to go out there and get the job done. You can go out there with a lot of confidence in him, knowing that he’s not going to walk people and not going to pitch around people. He’s going to make pitches and compete.”