ST. LOUIS – It is technically accurate to say that Jaime Garcia left Game 2 of the Cardinals-Cubs Divisional Series with a stomach virus. But what does that mean? Did he leave because of the virus? It may be like saying, “A local man jumped out of a tree with a briefcase.” You can’t really blame the briefcase for the jump.
So we can’t really say what was cause and what was effect, but we can say this, because Garcia said so himself: His head cost the Cardinals their chance to win this game. He made several key mental mistakes in a five-run second inning, and only he knows whether his physical condition affected his thinking. It’s certainly possible.
We’ve all been there, right? You’re sick and you haven’t slept well, but you have work to do, and then you realize you poured milk into your coffee maker and cereal into your mug.
Garcia told the Cardinals an hour before Game 2 he had a stomach virus. This was his first mistake. See, Garcia had been sick for at least two days. Why wait until an hour before the game to tell anybody?
The reasons were surely pure: Garcia had not pitched in the postseason in three years, and he was determined to do it. Perhaps he convinced himself he would be fine, then realized, an hour before the game, he wasn’t sure. But it put Cardinals manager Mike Matheny in a bad spot. Matheny had no choice but to start Garcia at that point.
“I was going to pitch,” a patient and professional Garcia said afterward. “It was my game. I worked so hard all year for this.”
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Garcia pitched well enough in the first inning and into the second. But that’s when his mind began to unravel. It started with a physical mistake by somebody else: shortstop Kolten Wong lost his grip on the ball as he tried to turn a double play and made a throwing error. That allowed the Cubs’ Austin Jackson to advance to second base. Garcia admitted he did not handle it well.
“Something behind you happens, you’ve gotta be able to block it out and still make pitches,” he said. “I’ve been really good at that the whole year and I didn’t do it today.”
Garcia needed to pay attention to the speedy Jackson and execute his pitches. He forgot about that first part. Jackson stole third. Garcia blamed himself.
“Yes, 100%,” he said. “I take a lot of pride in holding runners. I didn’t do it. He took the base. That shouldn’t happen.”
Garcia proceeded to walk Miguel Montero to put runners on first and third, which wasn’t so bad (and may even have been partly intentional) because pitcher Kyle Hendricks was coming up.
Then Hendricks bunted to Garcia. This would be the biggest play in the game, which was kind of wild for a few reasons. Hendricks was batting eighth. Cubs manager Joe Maddon doesn’t even like to bunt. The Cubs’ pitchers have been lousy bunters all year. And the Cardinals are masters of fundamental baseball tasks like fielding bunts.
Garcia knew he was supposed to throw home to nail Jackson. But he didn’t. The bunt was hit hard enough that he thought, as he fielded it, he should throw to second turn the double play. But he didn’t do that, either. He was caught between a thought and a hard place, and by hesitating, he gave himself one option: throw to first. But his head was a scrambled egg by that point. He didn’t set his feet, the throw was wild, and suddenly a simple bunt was effectively a double: A run scored and runners were on second and third.
“It was a mental mistake,” Garcia said. “I tried to go to second for the double play. That was initially what I tried to do … but that should never happen. That situation there, you’ve gotta go home and try to get that out.”
Now a 1-0 lead had turned into a 2-0 deficit, and Garcia’s stomach issue had was the least of his problems. Addison Russell bunted to score another run. Then Dexter Fowler hit a ball to shortstop and reached first for an infield single.
The ball had left the infield once the whole inning and the Cubs had scored three runs. Madness.
And that is when Garcia made a mistake pitch to Jorge Soler, up and over the plate, and Soler hit it over the fence. Well, at least it left the infield. Five runs.
Garcia finished the inning, but that was it. Matheny pulled him, and he said it wasn’t because Garcia had a stomach virus. Or maybe it was. Maybe the stomach affected the mind, which finally affected the arm.
“I’m very disappointed in myself right now,” Garcia said. “My main goal was to get to the postseason and help this team win games out there. I’m very disappointed in myself.”
Maybe he should have told Matheny a day earlier that he was sick, to give Matheny time to adjust. Maybe he could have just battled through it. Maybe he would have made the same mistakes without the virus. Maybe he will never know.
The Cubs won, 6-3. That five-run inning did it. Now the Cardinals go to Wrigley Field to face baseball’s hottest pitcher, Jake Arrieta, in an atmosphere that should be as raucous as any in the postseason.
Garcia will only be able to sit and watch. And if the Cardinals lose the series in the next two games, and Garcia doesn’t pitch, history will note his ERA in this postseason:
The throwing errors meant that, officially, the runs were all unearned. Garcia knows better.
“To me,” he said, “they’re all earned.”
Can’t argue that.