Second Time is the Charm for Hillcats’ Justin Garza

Excellent starting pitching is the norm for the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats staff under Cleveland Indians management. D.J. Brown was 11-3 in 2015 while wearing a Hillcats jersey. Julian Merryweather pitched exceptionally well in 2016, earning an All-Star nod and a promotion to AA Akron, and in 2017, Thomas Pannone had five starts to open the season without allowing a run before promotion to AA.

Southern California product Justin Garza is following the same path. The 5’10”, 170-pound right-hander leads the Hillcats staff in nearly every pitching category. Selected in the eighth round of the 2015 draft out of Cal-State Fullerton, it was the second time that Cleveland called his name. They also drafted him in 2012, but he chose to go to college rather than sign.

“I remember the first time they called me, I was in class,” said Garza, remembering back to high school. “I didn’t know how to handle it.”

He went to college, and now enters his fourth year as an Indians farmhand. It will only be the second year of full season work for the Glendora, California, native. Garza blew out his elbow near the end of his junior year. Getting drafted was the last thing he was worried about.

“I was just hoping to play baseball again,” he said. “The days leading up to the draft I was telling everyone, ‘Hey I just want an opportunity, if you give me an opportunity that’s great.’ It was a good feeling that [Cleveland] picked me up.”

He had Tommy John surgery on May 27, 2015, and two days after signing his contract with the Indians was on his way to Arizona for rehab. That took all of his 2015 summer and most of the 2016 season. He finally got into six games with the Rookie-level Arizona team late that year, pitching nine innings to inaugurate his professional career.

The rehab was a long and sometimes lonely experience, but there were a number of other players he knew from Southern California, many also rehabbing. He had roommates and training buddies to drive off the tedium of rehab.

“You start slow, getting your range back, throwing 45 feet, and then building up to games,” said Garza about his long rehab. “My rehab actually ended towards the offseason, so I got a few rehab outings in the Arizona League and then shut down for the offseason.”

Prior to his injury, Garza had a successful college career, going 12-0 as a freshman for the Titans, and following that up with a no-hitter against Cal-State Northridge as a sophomore.

A no-hitter at any level of competition is a significant accomplishment, but Garza is humble about his performance.

“It was my only complete game in college,” said Garza about that outing on the mound. “I remember making a few mistakes and they just happened to be hit right at guys.”

Trying not to be perfect and the spacious nature of the Titan’s home park were two other factors Garza considered worked in his favor. In any case, his performance kept the Matadors from getting a hit that day.

The accolades continue for Garza. Named the Carolina League Pitcher of the Week for two straight weeks to open the 2018 season qualifies as another significant step in his career. In 20 innings pitched through Thursday, April 26, Garza has tallied 23 strikeouts, 5 walks, and a 1.35 earned run average. The runs that he gave up to the Winston-Salem Dash in his most recent outing were the first earned runs of his season.

With Low-A Lake County in 2017, Garza began to collect the pieces to build his skills. He throws a fastball, change-up, and slider, all to good effect, and mixes them up well in order to keep hitters off balance. With his health issues now behind him, a primary goal for the season is to maintain his health so that he can take his regular turn in the starting rotation and give the Hillcats every opportunity to win games.

“I had to take the year to learn about myself, about professional baseball, and to learn about how to stay on the field health wise,” he said about his season with the Lake County Captains. “Now that I have that year under my belt, I want to build, and use it for confidence.”

So far, that confidence has produced excellent results.

Garza leads the Carolina League in WHIP, with a 0.75 mark. He has also hit three batters, but even Thursday evening against the Dash where he did not have his best stuff, he continued to battle to get opposing hitters out.

Facing Micker Adolfo, one of the Carolina League’s hottest hitters and a power bat who had hit two home runs in the previous night’s doubleheader, Garza managed to keep him from being effective. Adolfo, the son of a former minor leaguer in the Expos farm system and the father of twin boys, is the White Sox’s #17 ranked prospect. In the first inning with a runner on first, Garza struck out Adolfo on a pitch high and outside, neutralizing the circuit’s home run leader.

In the fourth inning, Adolfo led off, with Garza inducing a sharp liner to short to tally the inning’s first out. Garza would struggle a bit in the fifth inning, and went to the bench following his second walk of the night. Though he would not get a win for this outing, the Hillcats would put up a 7-3 victory and Garza would maintain his 2-0 record on the season.

He is matter-of-fact about working hard to be the best pitcher that he can be every time he takes the mound.

“With how long the season is, how long the road trips are and other variables, if you can give one hundred percent every day, then by the time your outing comes around, that’s the fun part.”

As the first month of the minor league season draws to a close, Garza is making his mark. Hillcats starting pitching has performed well, giving the team opportunities to get out to a 12-8 record, just a half game behind Northern Division leaders the Salem Red Sox.

“The faster you can make adjustments between pitches, I think that’s what makes guys so effective,” says Garza about his in-game work. “Keeping it simple and practicing everything between outings. Having a goal in mind.”

With arm surgery another year in the past, Garza continues to give thanks for the Indians’ willingness to give him an opportunity. He has collected the knowledge to make the most of his ability and is putting that into action on the mound. Now, he is just looking forward to seeing more of the Carolina League cities.

“I’ve heard that Myrtle Beach is nice,” he says with a grin. “I’m looking forward to that.”

Photo: Lindsay Carico/Lynchburg Hillcats

David Freier was born in Brooklyn New York in 1966 less than a decade after the Dodgers had departed the very same borough. His first professional baseball game was at Yankee stadium and to this day he and his father still argue over who started for the Orioles that day (his father says Mike Cuellar, while he insists it was Jim Palmer). Being a lover of underdogs he naturally became a Mets fan. He grew up in Montclair New Jersey which had the advantage of being home to two baseball legends, Yogi Berra and Larry Doby, as well as having a local college which regularly held baseball card conventions that fed his baseball card hobby. While attending college at the University of Richmond he and some of his friends attended a Richmond Braves game in the then (1985) brand new Diamond stadium, and now home to the Richmond Flying Squirrels. This began what has become a passion for the minor leagues of baseball. During his 10 years as a Richmond resident he and his future wife developed an affinity for the Braves, especially when Richmond fan favorite Francisco Cabrera scored the winning run to knock the Pirates from contention and vault the Braves into the World Series of 1991. During extensive travels he has rooted for the Minnesota Twins, Minneapolis Loons, St. Paul Saints, Iowa Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, Erie Sea Wolves, Berkshire Bears and of course the Lynchburg Hillcats. To date he has visited over 110 different baseball parks in which he has seen a game. He joined the Society for American Baseball Research in 2000 and has been a member ever since, where he participates on the Biographical and Minor Leagues committees when time permits. In his day job he is an Associate Professor of Biomedical Science at Lynchburg College in Virginia.

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