By David Willis
LOWELL — It was a start more than a year in the making, the start that Red Sox minor leaguer Jason Garcia dreamed of every night, and visualized as he worked his way through months of intense rehab.
Finally the wait was over, and the righty could officially return to the mound.
“It has been just about 13 months since I really pitched,” said Garcia before last night’s season opener with the Lowell Spinners. “It has been forever since I was under the lights, and I had been counting the days. It was rough and it’s a dream come true to finally be back on the mound.”
Last May, Garcia’s career was in jeopardy when a major injury to his right, throwing elbow forced him to undergo ligament replacement “Tommy John” surgery.
But after the long wait, Garcia returned to the mound, pitching four innings, striking out five and allowing no earned runs as the Spinners beat the Vermont Lake Monsters 7-2.
“There were a lot of strong emotions,” said Garcia. “I was trying not to get too excited and hold it down. But it was really thrilling after everything that happened.”
Garcia was projected to go as high as the second round in the 2010 MLB draft after a stellar career at Land O’Lakes (Fla.) High School, where he posted 107 strikeouts and a 1.46 ERA as a senior. But after indicating he would choose to pitch for Florida Atlantic University, teams initially passed.
The Red Sox took a flyer on Garcia in the 17th round, but initially Garcia was unsure if he should sign.
“I was obviously very excited to be drafted because that was my dream,” he said. “But I was also very confused if I should go to college or go pro. But I talked to my parents and scouts and I decided pro ball was the best choice for me.”
At just 17 years old, Garcia made his professional debut in 2010, pitching in nine games in the Gulf Coast League, allowing 16 runs and striking out 17 in 29.3 innings.
A season later, he was promoted to Lowell, where he went 3-3 with a 3.88 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 55.2 innings.
That earned him a promotion to high Single-A Greenville in 2012, but there he experienced an unexplained drop in velocity. He attempted to work through the issues, and struggled to a 6-6 record and 6.16 ERA.
Garcia began the 2013 season again in Greenville, but that was when reality hit and hit hard.
“I was feeling terrific and my velocity was the highest it has been all year,” he remembered. “I was 0-1 on a batter, I threw a slider and I heard a loud pop. I was hoping it wasn’t anything serious. But when the trainer came out and I saw her reaction, it scared me.”
It only became worse when he was taken to the locker room and met with doctors.
“One minute I was on the mound feeling great and the next I was on the trainer’s table, with my arm swelling in the most excruciating pain of my life,” he said. “It was pretty horrific. Within 5 or 10 minutes they were already talking about getting me an MRI and talking about my options for surgery.”
On May 30, 2013, Garcia underwent Tommy John surgery. Just a day later, he began his rehab with doctors stretching out his arm.
“The first six weeks were the most painful,” he said. “I was wearing a brace all the time. After 16 weeks I could start to throw the baseball again. During spring training I started long toss, but the coaches could see I was holding back. I talked to my pitching coach (Paul Abbott), who had Tommy John, and other pitchers that had been through it.”
As the spring progressed, so did Garcia’s confidence. By the time June arrived, he had been informed that he would be returning to Lowell.
Last night began in less-than-perfect fashion as Garcia hit the game’s leadoff batter. But he settled down and made a nice snag and throw to first to end the inning. Under a strict 70-pitch limit, he went four innings, striking out five and allowing just the one earned run after an error.
“It was so thrilling,” said Garcia. “I honestly feel the strongest and healthiest I ever have. And I also feel mentally mature. I feel like I am prepared to be a professional pitcher.”
Spinners 7, Vermont 2
Winning pitcher: Willie Ethington
Save: Carlos Pinales
HR: Mauricio Dubon
Hit leaders: Nick Longhi 3, Deiner Lopez 2, Dubon 2
Up next: Vermont at Lowell, today, 5:05 p.m.