only allowed four baserunners in five innings of work in his return. (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Matt Garza allowed just one hit in five scoreless innings in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, in what was his first major league start since July 21 of last year.
Garza lost the last two-plus months of last season to a stress fracture in his pitching elbow. Then almost immediately after reporting to camp this spring, he suffered a latissimus dorsi strain that cost him the first seven weeks of 2013. However, outside of Chicago Cubs manager Dale Sveum's quick hook (Garza came out after throwing just 82 pitches), there were no indications of the time he missed or the injuries he suffered in Tuesday night's performance against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Garza didn't give up that lone hit until there was one out in the fifth inning. His fastball regularly hit 95 mph, easily matching his pre-injury velocity. Mild wildness isn't terribly out of character for Garza, so the three walks, wild pitch and low strike rate (59 percent of his 82 pitches) aren't alarming. He still only allowed four baserunners in five innings and was able to pitch himself out of his only jam: A two-out, men on second-and-third situation in his final inning, which he escaped by getting Jose Tabata to ground out to shortstop. (The Cubs went on to lose the game 5-4.)
If Garza can build on this performance over the next month, he could prove to be one of the top targets leading up to the non-waiver trading deadline at the end of July. Garza, who is 29 and will be a free agent after this season, posted a 111 ERA+ while averaging 198 innings per year in the four seasons prior to his injury-shortened 2012. (ERA+ is a league and park-adjusted version of ERA where a value of 100 is average, anything more than 100 is better than league average, and anything lower is worse. Essentially, Garza was 11 percent better than league average during that span.) He also threw a no-hitter for the Rays in 2010 and was the Most Valuable Player of the 2008 American League Championship Series against the Red Sox. He's not an ace, but he could be a major upgrade for almost any rotation.
Garza complements that mid-90s heat with a sharp slider that helped him rack up 197 strikeouts in 2011, a changeup and a curveball, all of which were deployed Tuesday night. Garza also comes with a solid postseason resume, having struck out 29 men in 31 postseason innings while posting a 3.48 ERA in five starts. All of his starts lasted at least six innings and he limited the competition to one earned run in three of them, with two of those coming in the 2008 ALCS.
Garza's solid return is good news for the Cubs, who were hoping to cash him in for prospects at last year's deadline only to have him go down with an injury 10 days before it. It's also good news for contenders around the league as well, who have one more option for upgrading their rotations for the stretch run.