ST. PETERSBURG -- Taking baseball's October stage can toy with a player's focus. It's especially important for a pitcher to pull in his mental reins, finding a way to concentrate on each individual throw and ignore all the peripheral distractions.
Rays starter Matt Garza is keeping this in mind as he prepares to take the mound against the White Sox in a pivotal Game 3 in the American League Division Series on Sunday. In fact, Garza is quick to cite that very aspect when asked what will be the biggest key to having a successful outing in Chicago.
"Controlling my emotions," Garza said. "Controlling the moment. Controlling what I can control and that's, for me, pitching -- nothing more than that and nothing less. Just keep doing that and give the team a chance to win."
Garza isn't only in a position to lead Tampa Bay to a victory, but he could potentially help the club seal a three-game sweep over Chicago in this best-of-five series. The Rays took down the Sox in a 6-2 decision on Friday night, giving Tampa Bay a 2-0 edge in its first postseason series.
That will undoubtedly make for an intimidating atmosphere inside U.S. Cellular Field, where the White Sox posted a 54-28 record en route to the AL Central title. On Tuesday night, White Sox fans took part in a blackout, wearing dark clothes and whipping black rally towels during Chicago's 1-0 win over Minnesota in a one-game playoff for the division crown.
The South Siders will likely welcome Garza in a similar fashion, creating a raucous atmosphere for the 24-year-old right-hander. All season long, Garza has been working on his in-game focus, even turning to a sports psychologist for help. The progress he's made will be put to the test against the White Sox.
"It's something I've been working with -- the mental side of the game," Garza said. "Being able to control stuff like that and not being too caught up in the moment -- not trying to do too much when I don't have to. I just need to control my emotions and have my demeanor stay the same, no matter what's going on around me."
That has been a struggle at times this year for Garza.
Did You Know? Danks generally had better stats on the road this season (7-3, 2.92) than at U.S. Cellular Field (5-6, 3.66). However, opponents hit just .238 against him at home, 18 points lower than his road average.
The turning point for the pitcher came on June 8 in Texas, where Garza got into a heated shoving match with Rays catcher Dioner Navarro in the visitors' dugout after a brief on-field argument. Garza was pulled after the four-inning appearance and the pitcher later sought advice from Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon.
"Even though you're 24, a lot of times you resist change," Maddon said. "You're set in your ways. I know it's a young age, and you pretty much think you've got it and you don't need help. He said, 'I need help' -- and he got it.
"I give him a lot of credit for exposing himself like he did. Exposing himself and saying, 'I need this help,' and he's run with it as well as you possibly could."
Following the altercation with Navarro, Garza went on a stellar run.
In Garza's five outings after the incident, the pitcher went 3-1 with a 2.02 ERA, and he cruised to a 7-4 record with a 2.99 ERA in the 14 starts after the argument. During that span, Garza completed three games and spun a pair of shutouts for the resurgent Rays.
There was a five-start snag in September, when Garza went 0-2 with a 4.73 ERA down the stretch, but, overall, the right-hander straightened his season out. Garza finished 11-9 with a 3.70 ERA, despite an average of just 3.13 runs of support per outing, and established career highs with 30 starts and 184 2/3 innings.
Along the way, Garza never did encounter the White Sox, though he's gone 1-1 with a 4.97 ERA in three career outings against Chicago. Garza said he planned on keeping a close eye on how Tampa Bay starters James Shields and Scott Kazmir attacked Chicago's powerful lineup in the first two games of this series, respectively.
"I just need to control my emotions ... no matter what's going on around me."
-- Matt Garza
"I break down the hitters," Garza explained. "I look at their holes and see if it's still there, if they've made that adjustment yet. I pay a lot of attention to the games. Instead of just being a cheerleader, you've got to watch the game and kind of break people down."
Perhaps more importantly, Garza was able to analyze himself earlier this season and realize that he needed help in keeping his emotions in check. Maddon said that was an important step for Garza, who will try to use what he's learned this year when he takes the mound with a sweep in mind.
"He's a pretty good self evaluator," Maddon said. "Because I think he had been hiding a lot of those things. But the moment that he really confronted his own problems -- did something about them very proactively -- that's really what turned him around."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.