In April 2010, Christian Garcia drove home to his apartment in Trenton, N.J., mad at the world. He had just learned, again, that a doctor would slice open his pitching elbow — his second Tommy John surgery and third elbow surgery. His anger rose as he thought about the rehab ahead and the risk to livelihood.
“And I see this blind kid getting off a school bus,” Garcia recalled earlier this week. “I’m like, ‘Man, I’m worried about little things like this? When there’s people in the world that’s got way bigger problems than I’ve got?’ It made me think, you know what? This is just an obstacle. This is just a speed bump. I’m going to work hard and get right back on course. I never thought I wouldn’t get back.”
Garcia, 27, is back now. More than two years after his second elbow reconstruction, Garcia has become the Washington Nationals’ best relief prospect and a possible September call-up. He is not on the Nationals’ 40-man roster (which currently sits at 39 players), but his jet-fueled stuff and his absurd numbers warrant consideration. In fact, Manager Davey Johnson hinted on Friday that Garcia could be called up once Syracuse’s season ends.
In 501 / 3 innings between Class AAA Syracuse and Class AA Harrisburg, Garcia has allowed five earned runs — 0.89 ERA — while striking out 64 and walking 17. He became the closer at Syracuse, where he has a 0.59 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 301 / 3 innings.
The Nationals signed Garcia last July, after he threw a bullpen session for a handful of their evaluators in Viera, Fla. He had been a starting prospect for the New York Yankees, who chose him with their third-round pick in 2004. Pat Corrales, now a Nationals’ roving minor league instructor and a baseball man for more than half a century, says three arms stood apart in the Nationals’ system this year: Alex Meyer, Nathan Karns and Garcia.
Greg Booker, the Syracuse pitching coach, said Garcia could “absolutely” get batters out in the majors right now. Garcia throws his four-seam fastball 96 miles per hour consistently and touches 98, with a diving sinker that zips around 94. He has a 12-to-6 curve and a high-80s change-up.
“He’s definitely throwing above-average major league stuff,” Booker said.
After eight years in professional baseball and an endless rehab schedule, Garcia may get to use it in the major leagues. His first Tommy John surgery came in 2006, when he was 20, and he missed the entire 2007 season. It was hard, but typical enough for a young pitcher. He came back in 2008 for a partial season, appearing in 14 games.
The next year, his right elbow began aching again, the same pain he felt before his first Tommy John surgery. He made five starts, pitching through the pain, and punched up a 0.71 ERA with 24 strikeouts and 17 walks in 251 / 3 innings. “It was hurting so bad I couldn’t throw strikes,” Garcia said. “I would still get outs. I would walk the bases loaded, and then get the next three out.”
Garcia could barely get the ball to the plate. He started bouncing fastballs five feet short. He told Yankees officials and trainers he was positive he had torn his ligament again. They sent him to James Andrews, who diagnosed a bone spur and decompression in his nerve. Andrews, Garcia said, shaved down the spur and scraped scar tissue away.
He waited four months to throw again, but the pain felt the same — the spur had come from the back of his elbow, but the throbbing came from the exact spot as the scar from his first Tommy John surgery. He decided he would rehab and pitch through it.
On opening day in 2010, Class AA Trenton gave Garcia the ball. He made it into the sixth inning and threw a 95-mph fastball.
He knew immediately.
“I threw one pitch, and it popped. It was loud. I could hear it. I didn’t just feel it. I could hear it. When I grabbed the ball, it felt like a bowling ball. I just said, ‘I can’t throw this thing.’ ”
“I was feeling pain throughout the whole time,” Garcia said. “I threw one pitch, and it popped. It was loud. I could hear it. I didn’t just feel it. I could hear it. When I grabbed the ball, it felt like a bowling ball. I just said, ‘I can’t throw this thing.’ ”
Tommy John surgery has been so refined it hardly poses a threat to a pitcher’s career. But two of them is a red flag. Many pitchers are never the same, especially if they’ve had an additional elbow surgery like Garcia. He never wavered. He had been drafted out of high school in Miami to play baseball, and that was his life, period.
“I got nothing else,” Garcia said. “This is it for me. This is my livelihood. This is what I live for. Nothing ever crossed my mind to quit or anything like that. This is all I got. This is what I’m good at, and this is what I love. People go to college and spend their time trying to figure out what they love and what they’re going to do. I already know what I love, and I know what I want to do. Obviously, I’ve had some obstacles I have to overcome.”
The fastball shredded his ulnar collateral ligament for the second time, and it would be the last pitch Garcia ever threw for the Yankees.
“I was surprised, seeing that I was drafted by them, chose not to go to college,” Garcia said. “I was surprised, but I also understood. It’s a business. I wasn’t performing for them. I kept getting hurt. So I understood that part of it. I was kind of hurt by the way they did it. Nobody called me. I had my agent call me and tell me. I would have thought [General Manager Brian] Cashman would have called me, since we have talked on the phone several times. And he didn’t. But I don’t have any hate towards them. They’re a great organization. They’ve given me a great base. I’m thankful for them. I was very lucky to be drafted by such a great organization.”
In June 2011, Garcia’s agent set up tryouts for several teams, including the Nationals, to prove he was healthy. The Nationals wanted him to relieve, an idea he liked — starting, obviously, had not agreed with his right arm. The Yankees had always wanted him to start because he had four quality pitches.
The Nationals started Garcia slowly, but have taken most reins off this year. Director of player development Doug Harris told Booker he wanted to see how Garcia would respond to pitching multiple innings or on consecutive days. He has passed both tests.
“I love it here,” Garcia said. “They have great coaches, farm directors, general managers. Everybody here has been great. . . . They’ve treated me as though I was one of their guys they drafted. I’m fortunate to have signed with a club that has treated me as well as they have.”
Booker has worked with Garcia to get him to pitch off his fastball more often, to save his secondary pitches only for moments when he needs them. Though Booker raved about Garcia’s stuff, “that’s not to say that he’s there or he’s polished or anything,” Booker said. “What he’s been through, if nothing else, the learning curve is still — he’s got some things he needs to do.”
And he may have earned a call-up and a spot on the 40-man roster, maybe one of the most improbable stories of September.
“You play this game to play in the big leagues, not to play in Triple A,” Garcia said. “It’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid. I think about it, but I have no control over it. The only thing I can do is go out there and put zeros up and do things I can control, and get better. But it would be an honor to get called up. I can’t dwell on it, because I can’t control it.”