Veteran Garland leads by example for Rockies
Efficiency, pitching for ground balls exemplify Colorado philosophy
DENVER -- Laughter and good-natured trash talk filled the visiting clubhouse at Chase Field on Saturday as pregame preparation gave way to watching a roller-coaster basketball game between the Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets.
All but a few players were loudly cheering, coaching and officiating from in front of the TV. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki would break into laughter each time catcher Wilin Rosario, not really into the game, would shout a Spanish-tinged "Let's go, BREWK-leen!"
A smiling Jon Garland left his corner locker and took a seat dead in front of the TV, appreciating the basketball but more than that just enjoying the scene.
Looking for a veteran pitcher to personify the emphasis on ground balls and set a tone for competitiveness, the Rockies signed Garland late in Spring Training. And maybe the Rockies could be what Garland has been seeking during the "well-traveled" phase of his career.
Garland, 33, broke in with the White Sox in 2000 at 20 and matured with a team that would win the World Series in 2005. He thinks back to a bunch that grew up together on the field but stayed kids off it.
"We really enjoyed being at the field," Garland said. "Guys would get there early to play cards and hang out. When we went on the field, it was really that sense of family. The way guys bounce around, sometimes a team can get separate. We never really had that.
"It takes you back to a high school team. Guys had been together for years. We'd go to each other's houses and hang out. There were guys that it was their first year on the team, but they fit in really well. It translated into good baseball."
Despite his organic views, Garland's performance through five starts and his career pattern are quite the cold, efficient ode to new-school sabermetrics, Colorado style.
The smart pitching plan that Garland personifies could mean continued success for the Rockies, who are first in the National League West going into Friday's game with the Rays -- the opener of a six-game Interleague homestand that includes three with the Yankees.
Garland (2-2, 4.65 ERA), who will start Saturday's second game against the Rays, is averaging 13.5 pitches per inning, the fifth-lowest in the Majors, and his 3.30 pitches per batter faced rank second only to the 3.25 from the Reds' Bronson Arroyo. Garland's 2.59 ground balls per fly ball put him seventh in the Majors. The Rockies' first-year manager, longtime Major League shortstop Walt Weiss, loves the double play, and Garland's career 1.06 forced per nine innings ranks fourth among active pitchers.
The Rockies spent the winner searching for a veteran to help set a ground-ball standard. Enter Garland, who was limited to nine starts for the Dodgers in 2011 and missed all of last season because of shoulder surgery, pitched well for the Mariners in Spring Training but requested his release when the team didn't have a rotation spot.
Bringing in a veteran to stabilize the staff and give prospects more time to develop is not new.
The Rockies tried it last year with righty Jeremy Guthrie, based on his ability to eat innings. But Guthrie couldn't adjust to Coors Field. His season turned around immediately after he went to the Royals, but the Rockies, with a staff heavy on pitchers learning on the job, were on their way to a 98-loss finish. When effective low in the zone, Garland isn't affected by the way the ball carries at Coors Field.
After eight seasons with the White Sox, Garland was traded to the Angels in 2008, signed with the D-backs in 2009 and was traded to the Dodgers later that year, was signed by the Padres in 2010 and then re-signed by Dodgers in 2011. In most cases, his job description included leadership responsibilities even though he doesn't fit the romanticized veteran-as-mentor model.
"A few teams have looked at me in that situation, in that light -- San Diego did a bit, definitely Arizona was looking at that," Garland said. "It's a little difficult when you start hearing that about yourself. I'm still of the mindset that I want to win.
"But if I go out, do my business and do it the right way, and young pitchers can look at me and take one little thing, then it works out for everybody."
Garland's last start, a 4-2 loss at Arizona on Sunday, illustrated the competitiveness, even if the result didn't reward him.
Garland forced three double-play grounders in six innings. One run scored on a Rosario passed ball with two outs, another when Rosario blocked a ball but let it bounce too far from him. The next inning, he forced a grounder from Miguel Montero that was too weak for the double play he wanted, and a run scored with two out. Still, he was strong at the end and could have gone longer if he hadn't been removed for offense.
"For our pitchers to sit there and watch him every fifth day, there's some power in that," Weiss said.
But it's hard to follow a guy who comes and goes quickly, which is the way Garland's career has gone. Garland couldn't help but enjoy the laughter and silliness of a group of Rockies watching basketball and wonder where such camaraderie could take them if they stay together -- and he stays, too.
"The more comfortable you are, the better athlete you're going to be," Garland said. "I've played against pretty much everybody in the league. But when you're on that team, there's still a little time to establish relationships and a true team concept.
"To me, that's the key to winning, because everybody in the league can play. It's a matter of getting a group of guys together that jell so well, it takes over and make a difference."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.