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Rosie DiManno: Journeyman Garcia lets Blue Jays challenge sink in

DUNEDIN, Fla.—A bead of sweat is trickling down Jaime Garcia’s face. Joe Biagini leans across to wipe it away with his index finger.

Garcia flinches like he’s just been Tasered. “That’s creepy.’’

There’s only so much touchy familiarity a guy can take. And Biagini certainly takes some getting used to.

So no, there was apparently no substance to the sharp words exchanged by these pitchers on the day previous when Garcia appeared offended by something Biagini had said to him. Although the feigned prickliness was all on Garcia’s end of the conversation as they continued the sotto voce parley right into the showers, eventually emerging scrubbed, slippery and, it would seem, reconciled.

“It was a joke,” insisted Biagini on Saturday, when asked about the incident which had been overheard by several reporters.

But you might understand why enquiring minds jumped to the wrong conclusion.

Garcia has been a Blue Jay for less than a month. His free-agent signing — a $ 10-million, one-year contract that includes a 2019 team option and $ 2-million buyout — all but relegated Biagini to Triple-A Buffalo, unless Marcus Stroman is not prime-time ready when the season starts. (He continued light tossing on Saturday and will likely throw a bullpen off the mound Monday, his shoulder inflammation subsiding.)

If anything, it’s Biagini who probably winced when the Garcia acquisition was announced. A $ 12-million investment, minimum, for the career starter has No. 5 in the rotation written all over it. So, either a return to the ’pen for Biagini as long reliever (dubious) or a quasi No. 6 in the minors. Or a trade.

Sidling into a new clubhouse is kind of like starting at a new school, with all the attendant anxieties and who am I going to eat lunch with. Though lord knows Garcia has had a bellyful of new clubhouses in the recent past — four of them over the last 14 months: St. Louis, which drafted him out of high school in 2005 and where Garcia has spent the bulk of his career. A trade in December 2016 to Atlanta. Dealt from Atlanta to Minnesota on July 24, 2017. Traded eight days later to the Yankees. Signed as a free agent by Toronto on Feb. 15.

Enough new jerseys to cover the wall in a sports bar.

“There’s a saying that I like to use a lot,” Garcia discloses. “I’m master of the things I can control. Outside of that, I don’t spent much time thinking about it. Whether a team wants me or doesn’t want me, out of my control. I’m just grateful and blessed that I can still get to play this game that I’ve played my whole life even though I’ve gone through a lot of injuries. Just trying to get the most out of whatever I have left.”

Which is what the Jays are hoping too, obviously, acquiring Garcia to round out the starting rotation.

The psychic impact of bouncing around baseball after eight years in St. Louis has taken some emotional toll. But it’s hardly unusual at a certain stage of a pitcher’s life, when he enters the journeyman zone. And southpaws are always coveted, even after, as in Garcia’s case, posting a 5-10 record and 4.41 ERA with three teams. Over the breadth of his career, he’s 67-55 with a 3.69 ERA in 185 games — 157 of them as a Cardinal, which included a World Series ring in 2011.

“Psychologically, I’m a person that has been through a lot in my career. I’ve had to overcome a lot of adversity. I’ve had three major surgeries on my arm.’’

Tommy John surgery, that cost him all of 2009. Rotator cuff and torn labrum. Thoracic outlet syndrome — compressed blood vessels or nerves in the space between collarbone and first rib, causing pain in the shoulder and neck and numbness in the fingers.

“I’ve had everything you can think of and I’m still here. And I feel good now. I’m healthy, I’m excited and I take nothing for granted.”

The 31-year-old was born in a small Mexican town on the border with Texas. He crossed that border to attend high school in the U.S. and was drafted as a teenager.

Five pitches in his repertoire: slider, curveball, changeup, sinker and fastball.

“Sneaky fastball,” as pitching coach Pete Walker describes it. “Tremendous movement on his sinker, a changeup that goes right along with it. Relies on a little deception with a funky delivery. But really good sinker-changeup combination. Good breaking stuff, good curveball and small slider. He’s a command guy that needs to move the ball around but really relies on a nasty sink.”

Garcia: “A lot of people talk about my stuff being nasty. But what people don’t know is I mastered the mind and try to really adapt to what’s working that day, whatever my body may be feeling. Sometimes something comes up and you have to change mechanics — a tweak, arm angles. I’ve been able to learn a lot about that.’’

Doesn’t bring much heat, averaging around 90 on the fastball. Weirdly, however, his velocity has increased by a couple of ticks in the last year.

“It’s crazy. My velocity is up from where it’s been my whole career. How do you explain that?’’

Garcia’s stuff was on display in his first start Saturday (second appearance) against the Tigers, earning the win on three innings of work — three hits, a walk and two strikeouts.

“Just trying to get a feel for my pitches, working on the things that I need to work on. Overall I’d say we accomplished that. I feel I’m where I want to be physically, all the aspects of my pitching.’’

Right on target, at this point in spring training.

“Maybe a couple of other guys are a little bit ahead of me. But it’s a different approach I’m taking. My goal is to be 100 per cent ready to go in April and be 100 per cent to October. I’m where I want to be.”

Except maybe too close to Biagini’s wandering fingers.

TORONTO STAR