Garza's intensity nothing like Zambrano's

Cubs' best pitcher not about to tone down emotion

MESA, Ariz. — Every now and then, Cubs pitcher Matt Garza's competitive drive leads him down the wrong path far enough that his catcher starts talking about cars.

"I get creative on the mound because he can be pretty emotional,'' Geovany Soto said Wednesday. "It's a challenge. Say there are two on, two out in the sixth, I'll go out and ask Matt about a 1960 Camaro just to get his mind off the field for a second and recompose."

Or sometimes Soto takes a cue from Garza's killer stare and just shuts up.

"Matt's emotion is not all negative,'' Soto said. "He'll get that look in his eye that says, 'I'm coming after you.' It's bad news for the hitter.''

News flash for anybody in the Cubs organization worried whether Garza will control his emotions as well as his fastball: Until Garza's greatest strength becomes his biggest weakness, let it ride.

This isn't Carlos Zambrano, one home-run pitch away from doing harm to the Gatorade cooler — or a teammate. This is a team-first pitcher who sees a direct link between passion and performance, a pitcher tougher on himself than teammates since learning a lesson in 2008 after arguing with Rays catcher Dioner Navarro in the dugout. This is the Cubs' best pitcher, more valuable than volatile, who believes in all the organizational change under way.

Well, almost all of it.

"They've asked me to tone things down my whole career, but I'm not going to,'' Garza said. "There's no tone-down. This is me when I wake up. If people ask me to keep toning it down, then they're going to take away my love and I'll just go find something else to do to be more passionate about.''

As Garza bounces around at 9 a.m., razzing fellow pitchers during routine fielding drills, his uncommon energy is obvious. No matter the hour, Garza is on more often than your smartphone.

"Being away from my kids for eight months a year, do you think I would be here if I didn't love it?'' he asked. "I'm a big kid playing recess all day.''

Even when Garza isn't pitching, opponents find him engaged. Ask Cubs manager Dale Sveum, the former Brewers hitting coach who recalled seeing — and hearing — Garza from the top step of the opposing dugout.

"You appreciated a starting pitcher being that involved the four days he doesn't pitch,'' Sveum said.

How much the Cubs truly appreciate Garza still sparks discussion after an offseason of trade rumors that made little sense for a team rebuilding its pitching staff. The Cubs control Garza's contract through 2013, and general manager Jed Hoyer has acknowledged discussing an extension. Some say a long-term deal will make Garza even more tradable. I say, what's the hurry and why deal your ace?

If Garza excels, his numbers will be worth the higher salary. If he suffers an injury or inconsistency, the Cubs won't be saddled with a contract they regret. I realize Garza endured seven no-decisions last year after leaving with a lead, but he won 10 games — not 20. In a year of evaluation, the Cubs can afford to make other big decisions before addressing Garza's future.

"We need more guys like Matt who can win big games,'' Hoyer said.

Hoyer had a front-row seat at Tropicana Field for Garza's biggest. Starting Game 7 of the 2008 AL Championship Series, Garza gave up one run in seven innings as the Rays beat Hoyer's Red Sox 3-1.

"I remember Theo (Epstein) looking at me in the fifth inning and saying, 'Uh-oh, we're in trouble,' '' Hoyer said. "Those are the kind of games we want Matt to win for us here.''

Here in Chicago, where Garza never has felt happier. He welcomes the Cubs' interest in a new deal and loves his new number, 22. He playfully pointed out he has played in the postseason in '06, '08 and '10 — and "I'm not about to break my streak in '12.'' He described the simple, satisfying life of a North Shore suburban dad who sleds with his three kids and mingles with neighbors, an image that barely resembles the complicated, combustible guy on the mound.

Since Garza's wife, Serina, threatened to keep him from their son after an outburst as an 18-year-old freshman at Fresno State, baseball's most important unwritten rule for Garza has involved separating work and home.

"I thought baseball was life,'' Garza said. "She made a lot of sense. She helped me see I need to leave my crap at the door and pick it up when I go back to work.''

Where Soto knows just what to say to steer Garza straight.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh
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