One year later: Galarraga's about-face
Hurler reflects on storied journey from anonymous to absolute lock
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Armando Galarraga remembers where his locker was last Spring Training, even if so few people remember much of him then.
"That one, right there," Galarraga said, pointing just behind him, "where [non-roster reliever Juan] Rincon is."
The locker is just on the other side of where he is now, merely a few feet away. It might as well be on the other side of the street.
"Everybody passed around me," Galarraga said. "Some guys were looking [at the nameplate and thinking], 'Who's that guy?'"
Thirteen Major League wins later, that's no longer a problem.
An anonymous Minor League invite one year ago, Galarraga has won over Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who made him one of his four set starters entering camp. Not only does everyone in the clubhouse recognize him now, so do people in Detroit and many more in his native Venezuela. Yet as Galarraga readies for his follow-up season, he's trying to act as if he hadn't won a job at all, even if his manager doesn't want him to add too much pressure to top last year.
"I work on pressure," Galarraga said. "Every player in here, they work on pressure. Pressure on you, you have to handle it. I want to get pressure."
His most famous feat last spring might well have been his card tricks, which drew a crowd many mornings before workouts. He has more tricks up his sleeve.
By now, Galarraga's story is well-repeated, one of Detroit's few bright spots in a last-place season. His 13 wins were two more than any other Tiger last year despite opening the season at Triple-A Toledo.
He was somewhere in the Tigers' camp. It's just that few paid attention while he was there, at least to his pitching.
Leyland has talked about it many times, but it bears repeating.
"He looked like another pitcher," Leyland said Sunday. "We didn't know much about him. I didn't know much about him. He got better as the spring went on, I will say. But did he light up our eye? No. That's why I credit the scouting job. We all looked at it.
"Did he look all right? Yeah, he looked all right. Did he look like he stood out like a sore thumb? No."
His Spring Training totals sure didn't -- five earned runs on six hits over 6 2/3 innings with seven walks, six strikeouts and two wild pitches. He was among the first cuts in camp, but he closed out with a flourish.
"I know I felt good and my location was good," Galarraga said. "I remember the last time I pitched in the big league camp last year, I threw three innings with one hit at Washington [March 10]. And the next day, they sent me down.
"I pitched good that day. ... So I said, 'OK. I know that it's not like I'm going to make the roster. They have all these guys. They already have five starters.' I went to Triple-A and I pitched really well. In the two games I pitched, I won the two."
Dontrelle Willis' hyperextended knee opened a spot in Detroit for him to take. The rest is history.
"That's why it's a great game," Leyland said. "You never know about a player until he's given an opportunity."
By year's end, he was far from a secret. His next-to-last win was an Aug. 19 quality start at Texas, the place where he made his Major League debut in 2007 before the Rangers traded him to Detroit in a Minor League deal that winter.
He won in his return, and the pitching-needy Rangers took the oft-asked question of how they could've let him go. They couldn't have anticipated such an emergence.
Still, new Tigers catcher Gerald Laird wasn't altogether shocked. Laird caught Galarraga's debut in 2007. He remembered the right-hander, wondering then if he was ready for the Majors. And as he watched Galarraga hit the corners last August, he remembered the stuff.
"We knew what we had," Laird said. "We always knew he had good stuff. It's just putting it all together. Finally, he was commanding his heaters in and out. The slider was keeping us off-balance.
"End of the year, you could see it. His demeanor, his confidence was just totally different than when he was with the Rangers. That's what having success does for you."
It also leads to name recognition. Galarraga remembers seeing someone walk up with a jersey for him to sign. Galarraga's name was on the back. They weren't available in stores, so the fan had it personalized.
He returned to his native Venezuela during winter and saw what he missed. Newspapers called him Galarraga the Surprise. One story said, "He's not a Cat -- he's a Tiger," in reference to the Big Cat, Andres Galarraga, to whom he isn't related. He made the Venezuelan rotation for the World Baseball Classic alongside Johan Santana, Carlos Zambrano and Felix Hernandez. With Santana and Zambrano, Galarraga's now a top starter.
He split his offseason between Venezuela and Detroit. But by no means does he want to feel comfortable this spring.
"I want this year to be better than last year," Galarraga said. "I don't want to be, like, 10-13 wins and an ERA of three-something. I want my ERA to be two. I want to get 20, 18 [wins]. It's a little pressure, but it's good. It makes me feel good."
To that end, he spent the offseason running to improve his endurance after tiring a bit down the stretch. Pitching-wise, his fastball and slider are there, he said, but he wants to improve his changeup. He's also practicing that big, eephus-like curveball that he tried last summer to catch hitters by surprise.
His lofty standards are coupled with high motivation. Leyland just wants to make sure he doesn't overdo it.
"Don't put over-expectation," Leyland said. "He won 13. Don't start expecting [him] to win 18, 19, 20 games. Don't start putting any extra pressure on. I just want him the same way. He's got a good feel for pitching. I obviously was very impressed last year, as everybody was. Just continue to make progress. Just continue to take steps forward. Just pitch."
That said, Leyland added: "It works to your advantage if you don't quit working."
No danger in Galarraga's case.
"I want to feel like the same guy," Galarraga said. "Let me push myself for everything, to have a really good year. It's not like a surprise no more."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.