When Orioles right-hander Freddy Garcia was left without a job just a week before the regular season began this year, there was no doubt in his mind that he would pitch in the major leagues in 2013 if he was given the chance.
Garcia — a 15-year major league veteran who won the World Series with the Chicago White Sox in 2005 and is the winningest Venezuelan-born pitcher in baseball history (152 career wins) — didn't need to prove anything after the San Diego Padres released him in late March. He could have went home to Miami and waited or retired.
But Garcia, who is with his ninth different organization, has grown so used to proving himself over and over again, especially as the 36-year-old has continued to reinvent his repertoire with age, the idea of going to the minor leagues for a five-start trial with the Orioles' Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk didn't seem like a big deal.
"When you still have it, then why [walk away]?" Garcia said with a smile. "I love the game. I don't want to walk away. I think I can still get people out. When I'm done, I'm done. I'll go home, spend more time with the family, play golf, go fishing."
And now, after a dazzling Orioles debut in which he took a no-hitter to the seventh inning and allowed just two runs and three hits in 6 2/3 innings Saturday in the Orioles' 5-4 10-inning win over the Los Angeles Angels, Garcia is showing he's not done yet. And he hopes to remain the team's fifth starter for the long haul.
"I'm a really positive guy. That's why I went down there and did my stuff, and they asked me to do this, and I did it, and that's why I'm here," Garcia said Sunday. "I wasn't going there to play in Triple-A for three months. I would have gone home. I went there to do whatever I had to do to get back."
Garcia stands out in a young Orioles clubhouse that up until last week didn't have a player over age 31 on the active roster (They traded for 32-year-old catcher Chris Snyder). But in many ways, Garcia is a perfect fit for a team that still thrives with a chip on its shoulder despite its success in the rough-and-tumble American League East.
"He's got a lot of pride," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of Garcia. "This is what he's been doing for a long, long time. I hear them in Norfolk raving about how good a teammate he was down there and how much they were impressed by the way he carried himself. I can see why we want him around."
Garcia, who signed a minor-league deal with the Padres in January with the hope that he could earn one of the team's two open rotation spots, was released by San Diego on March 24 after having an 8.71 ERA in spring training. Looking back his time with the Padres, Garcia said he has never been a good spring training pitcher — and he hasn't. He has a career 7.81 ERA in the spring, and opponents are batting .319 against him during the exhibition season.
But the Orioles invited Garcia to throw a bullpen session in front of coaches at the team's minor league complex in Sarasota, Fla., and the club signed him to a minor league deal that gave him the chance to opt out following his fifth start.
"I saw it pretty much right off the get go," said Norfolk pitching coach Mike Griffin, who supervised that first bullpen session in Sarasota. "He threw a side [session on the] last day of spring training down at minor league camp, and he jumped right into the rotation and was on a roll from start No. 1 to his last start. … He got his confidence back. I don't think that was the problem at all, but he just needed to pitch to show that he still had it left. And that's exactly what he did."
Last season, Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette signed two other pitchers in the twilight of their career — left-handers Jamie Moyer and Dontrelle Willis — to minor league deals, but both left the organization before making it to Baltimore.
Garcia, however, was different. While he said he didn't necessarily love the long bus rides in Triple-A, he loved playing for Norfolk manager Ron Johnson and Griffin, so much so that he decided to remain in the organization following his fifth start.
"Those guys down there, they made my job easy for me," he said.
Over the years, Garcia's pitching approach has evolved. When he was younger, he threw in the mid-90s. But after reconstructive shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum in 2007, he learned to survive by changing speeds.
The 6-foot-4, 255-pound Garcia remains an imposing figure on the mound, but now he relies on his big hands to throw with a variety of grips and breaking-ball pitches. The movement on his pitches is not more important than their speed.
"When I got surgery, I had to change the style I pitched," Garcia said. "I wasn't throwing hard anymore. My velocity never came back. I started throwing my split, a slider in, a slider out, I pitched backward. I did a lot of different stuff. That's how I survived the last three or four years."
In Norfolk, he worked deliberately on his sinker, but against the Angels, he used his curveball and a split-fingered fastball that to most hitters looks like a changeup with dramatic drop to keep hitters off pace of his fastball, which is now in the high 80s.
"Quite a few of his pitches were working," said Snyder, who caught Garcia's first start with the Orioles. "With that being the case, it was easy to choose from. Good curveball, good split. He mixed his fastball to keep them off the offspeed. He threw the ball great. He was moving the ball in and out, with an occasional slider here and there."
He also threw 16 of 24 first-pitch strikes, which helped keep the Angels off balance. That's exactly what Griffin said he did in Norfolk, but he also had the savvy to throw his secondary pitches for strikes behind in the count.
"When the hitter thinks he's slowed down, then Freddy speeds him back up," Griffin said. "He still moves the ball in and out, up and down. He threw strikes down here, a ton of strikes down here with a lot of different stuff. What was impressive down here was that he threw his secondary pitches for strikes when he was behind in the count, which wasn't very often."
Garcia, who is in line to make his next start on Friday in Minnesota, could start Thursday's home game against Kansas City if Miguel Gonzalez's thumb blister hasn't healed. If he does start Thursday, it would be on regular rest because of Monday's off day.
Whether Garcia can sustain Saturday's success remains to be seen.
Last season with the Yankees, he split time between the rotation and the bullpen. He had a 5.93 ERA in 17 starts and was 2-0 with a 2.42 ERA in 13 relief appearances. In his first start of the season in 2012, Garcia threw five wild pitches — the fourth most in one game since 1918 — against the Orioles in Baltimore, but still kept New York in the game and the Yankees won in 12 innings.
That's another reason Garcia could be a good fit for the Orioles, a team that seems to step up in tight games. If he can give the Orioles a chance to win consistently — whether it's pretty or not — he could be a suitable fifth starter. Garcia is also open to pitching in relief, if needed, but the Orioles' greater need will likely remain as a starter.
As important, but not as evident, is how the Orioles have raved about Garcia's work ethic.
The day after pitching against the Angels, he was running the steps through the Angel Stadium seating bowl before the gates opened. In Norfolk, Griffin said Garcia was a perfect example of hard work. He said he would even ask for extra balls hit to him in the outfield before games.
"Freddy still has the burning desire and that's obvious," Griffin said. "He was willing to come down to Triple-A and wait for that opening. His attitude was just incredible. What a joy to work with. I have nothing but great things to say about him. A 14-year veteran, it didn't matter here to Freddy. Freddy just fit in."
Around the horn: Right-hander Zach Clark, who made his major league debut Wednesday in relief on the road against the Seattle Mariners and was designated for assignment Saturday, cleared waivers Monday afternoon and was outrighted to Double-A Bowie. He will work on throwing a knuckleball. "Zach is an experienced capable pitcher and has always had a good knuckleball, which he will now throw in competition," Duquette said.