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Garland's Fastball Rises With the Temperature

July 19, 1998|STEVE HENSON

Other than his molten right arm, Jon Garland's cool was always considered his best asset.

But the chill of spring nights in Rockford, Ill., was a whole new sensation for the former Kennedy High pitching sensation.

Garland, the first-round draft choice with the 90 mph heater, found himself huddled next to dugout heaters during the first few weeks of the season at Class-A Rockford, Ill.

But it didn't take him long to realize the 30-40 degree temperatures were tougher on hitters than pitchers.

So he made an adjustment.

"I busted them in on their hands as often as I could," he said.

Now comes another adjustment as suffocatingly hot, humid conditions sweep the Midwest.

Garland, too, is heating up.

After a frustrating stretch of throwing only in the mid-80 mph range, he is back to trusting his fastball the way he did in high school.

Combined with an improved changeup and the sharp-breaking curve that always has been considered his best pitch, Garland's greater velocity is helping him whittle down an earned-run average that has hovered around 6.00.

"I've had some good outings and some bad outings," he said. "I prefer the good ones."

The weather can change. So can his velocity. But the laconic humor Garland's high school friends remember so well remains intact.

The Chicago Cubs made Garland the 10th overall pick in 1997 at the age of 17, gave him a $1.465 million signing bonus and sent him to rookie league in Mesa, Ariz.

He pitched well, going 3-2 with a 2.70 ERA in 40 innings and striking out 39 while walking 10.

Next came fall instructional league, where he met Kerry Wood, who like Garland is a 6-foot-5, 200-pound right-hander. At the time Wood was just a guy saddled with an ERA of 4.60 in a '97 season split between double-A and triple-A.

That Wood, 21, has become an overnight sensation with the Cubs, mowing down major league hitters and grabbing headlines in Chicago excites the even-tempered Garland.

"I'm happy for him," Garland said. "It pumps me up thinking I might be in the same situation. Maybe not throwing as hard, striking out 14 a game. But I can be in the same situation, being in big leagues, pitching and having fun."

The Cubs are taking their time with Garland, who won't turn 19 until Sept. 27. There was no panic when he seemingly lost the pop on his fastball early in the season.

Garland is relieved that, like the summer sun, his velocity returned. He is 3-6 with a 5.34 ERA and 55 strikeouts and 36 walks in 89 1/3 innings, but he has strung together several good outings.

"At first I was wondering where it went," he said of his fastball. "I think I was using all upper body, not using my lower half.

"There are still days I'm not comfortable on the mound, not comfortable with my mechanics. Other days, I feel great."

Developing consistency and learning to pitch well on the days everything doesn't feel just right is what the minor leagues are all about.

Garland has a comrade in arms, somebody with a similar background who is going through the same experience.

Todd Noel, a 6-4 right-hander, was the Cubs' first-round pick in 1996 and is one year older than Garland.

They share a three-bedroom apartment with three other players.

"We hung out a little bit last year in Mesa," Garland said of Noel. "From then on, we hung out in instructional league and in spring training. We've had no problems from the get-go.

"We're a lot alike, but I throw a curve and he throws a slider."

There's that understated humor again. Garland is the same low-key guy all the time.

Except for one memorable visit to Chicago, which is 90 minutes south of Rockford.

"I went to a Cubs' game," he said. "Wrigley is a beautiful stadium."

Did Garland visualize himself standing on the mound, blowing away hitters like Kerry Wood?

"In a way, yeah, a little bit," he said. "I really did."

*

What looks like a drawn-out repeat of a summer of anguish is actually the final stages of routine negotiations.

So says Jeff Weaver, the former Simi Valley High right-handed pitcher who was the Detroit Tigers' first-round pick out of Fresno State in June.

Bitterly disappointed at being a second-round pick a year ago as a draft-eligible sophomore, Weaver turned down a $700,000 offer by the Chicago White Sox and returned to Fresno State.

The move paid off. He was an All-American for the second year in a row and became the 14th player selected in the draft.

But he remains at his parents' home in Simi Valley, working out at a gym and playing catch with his 15-year-old brother, Jered.

What, Weaver worry?

"Things are going good," he said. "Everything will come down here in the next week or so. We've been talking to the Tigers quite a bit. They are anxious to get me there to play."

Weaver is represented by agent Scott Boras, who is notorious for the lengthy holdouts of his clients. But this time the delay is less hard-ball negotiations than both sides waiting until other first-round picks sign to gauge the market.

Only five of the top 22 picks were signed as of early this week. Last season the 14th pick signed for $1.33 million and Weaver probably will get more than $1.5 million.

"We are close on numbers at this point," Weaver said. "What we are going through is not an unusual process."

Spending a summer tooling around Simi Valley is all that strikes Weaver as odd.

"This is the first summer I've had off since I started college baseball," he said. "I visited some relatives and I go to the beach. But I'm running and staying in shape because I know it's getting to be time to play."

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