Last season, Justin Garcia featured a flowing mane of dark blonde hair. This season, he has it cut short. Either way, he has been a reliable arm out of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats bullpen.
Garcia was born in Rowlett, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. He attended Weatherford College for two years before the Indians selected him in the 38th round of the 2013 First Year Player Draft. He is now in his fourth season in their farm system and enjoying every minute of being a professional ballplayer.
“I’ve always wanted to play professional baseball and it was a dream for me when I was young,” said Garcia. “The teachers would ask, ‘What will you do if it doesn’t happen?’ but I was always going to do this, without a doubt. I would have signed for a candy bar and a trip out to spring training.”
He developed an interest in baseball from his mother and got to grow up playing against many talented players in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. She played softball growing up, was always willing to play catch, and passed her passion for the game on to him.
“She was a catcher. She would stick her hand in front [of her glove] so fast trying to get the ball out of the glove she’d end up breaking her pinky a number of times.”
Growing up he was a fan of the Texas Rangers. “Pudge Rodriguez and, of course, Nolan Ryan, those are my two,” said Garcia about his favorite players. Not too shabby to be able to follow the careers of two Hall-of-Famers for your hometown team.
Following players like Rodriguez and Ryan is not easy. Garcia has learned that there is a great deal more to success in baseball than just having talent.
“It’s more of a job here,” he said speaking about what makes professional baseball different. “You’re around a lot more people that have been in the game for years and seen the plays happen on the field. The level of play is obviously better, but you have a chance to believe in yourself and develop your routine.”
His peak season of performance was in 2015, pitching for the Low-A Lake County Captains. In 52 1/3 innings, he marked a 1.89 ERA, 40 strikeouts, an opposing batting average of .207, and a 3-0 record. In a Lynchburg Hillcats uniform, he has accumulated 46 games pitched with a 4-1 record, chalking up 65 strikeouts and a 3.47 ERA in 70 total innings.
On the mound, he tends to focus on his fastball, as most relievers only pitch one or two innings per outing.
“I like to throw a lot of fastballs,” he said. “I’m more of a strike thrower, I don’t have dominant stuff. I can locate my three pitches for strikes in any count, and that really helps.”
Working out of the Hillcats bullpen, he and the rest of the team’s relief corps usually have some time on their hands before they are needed in a game. This is not just down time. The bullpen crew talk about the game and what went on the night before, or the last time they faced a team or a group of hitters.
“We have a bunch of good guys. A mix of veteran guys, first year guys. We kind of get together and talk about what we did,” said Garcia about the regular bullpen chatter. “If you pitched the day before, hey this guy really likes this pitch. Yesterday in the bullpen we noticed that Cruz [Johan Cruz of Winston-Salem] swung at every first pitch, all of his at bats. There’s a savvy group down in the bullpen.”
This also extends to watching how the Hillcats starters work the opposing batters so that if any of the relievers are called upon, they can continue with the pitching strategy, or use it to gain an edge on their hitting foes.
“If you have somebody who throws the ball inside a lot, like Chiang [Shao-Ching Chiang], he likes to double up fastballs inside and keep em’ honest. Then as a pitcher coming into the game, he has opened up the outside part of the plate, so you don’t need to attack with fastballs inside, you can stay away and bury em’ that way.”
His most recent outing may be his best in a Hillcats uniform. He pitched four innings of a 15-inning contest against division rival Potomac. He struck out seven while allowing only a single batter on base by a walk. This earned him his fourth career win at the High-A level and solidified his role as a key member of the Lynchburg bullpen.
When he is not at the ballpark working on his pitching routines, or getting ready for a game, he enjoys golf.
“I picked that up in college,” says Garcia. “I’d never played a round of golf in my life and some of my buddies were like, ‘Let’s play golf!’. I didn’t have any clubs, they let me borrow some and we went out there and it was fun.”
He can hit long drives off the tee, and playing golf has allowed him to enjoy watching it on television as well.
“I watch golf all the time because of how hard it is. You just have to be so consistent at it,” he said. “It’s definitely my second passion other than baseball.”
For now, Justin Garcia is focusing on mastering the difficult art of pitching. Though he only spent two years at Weatherford, he plans on completing his college education someday.
“Mom was pressing me to do the rest of my college years,” said Garcia. “So the Indians paid [in his contract] for me to finish my school. I haven’t finished yet, but someday I’ll get back to it.”
So if you happen to catch the Hillcats this season, anywhere around the Carolina League, sit near the visitor’s bullpen. About 15 or 20 minutes prior to game time, #20 will come strolling by with a big smile on his face. That is Justin Garcia.
“I’m just a normal guy. I like to play baseball, work hard, and hopefully get the chance to test my skills against the best in the world in the Major Leagues one day.”
Here is to hoping that he gets that chance.
Photo: Lathan Goumas/The News and Advance