PHILADELPHIA — This weekend, the Padres will almost certainly turn to Luis García for high-leverage outs in Philadelphia with a spot in the World Series on the line.
It’s quite a full-circle moment for García. Because if, a decade ago, the Phillies hadn’t taken a flier on a young right-hander with an electric fastball and a high ceiling — a young right-hander who hadn’t pitched competitively in almost a year and was spending time as a barber and working for a moving company — García wouldn’t be pitching at all.
“Everything that happens from here now — it’s all cool,” García said. “This is a great moment for me. To face the team that gave me the opportunity to be in the big leagues, on this stage, it’s amazing. … That was the team that gave me the opportunity to get back in baseball.”
García signed with the Dodgers out of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic in 2004. He spent four years in their system and two with Washington, never pitching above High-A.
The results were middling, and García grew frustrated with the lack of progress. Like so many 23-year-olds who couldn’t cut it at the lower levels of the Minor Leagues, García started to wonder what came next. After he’d posted a 4.83 ERA in the Nationals’ system in 2010, he moved on.
García was out of baseball in 2011 and working in a barber shop in Morristown, N.J., aptly called Major League Barbers. He struggled for clients and quickly turned to working for a moving company instead.
“No, I wasn’t [a good barber],” García said. “I did that for a month. I was learning, and I was getting better. But I wasn’t making that much money, and I had to pay bills.”
Of course, it’s not lost on García that he’s reminiscing on the field before a playoff game, having signed a two-year, $7 million contract with the Padres last offseason.
“Everything that happened in those two years got me here,” García said. “I think about that every day.”
To hear him tell it, García’s return to baseball happened swiftly. He later took a job as an instructor at an indoor baseball facility. There, he started throwing bullpens, and suddenly he was pitching for the indy league Newark Bears in June 2012.
That offseason, García says he tried out for six or seven big league clubs. The Phillies were the only club to offer him a Minor League deal.
And when García returned to affiliated ball, he was on a mission.
“It was a learning process for me,” García said. “When I came back into baseball, I was more mature than I was before. I worked harder. I knew I had another chance, and it would take all I had.”
García progressed through three levels of the Phillies’ Minor League system in 2013, posting a 1.51 ERA. That earned him a big league callup in July, and he posted a 3.73 mark across 24 outings.
García spent the next six seasons moving back and forth between the Minors and the big leagues. It’s a relatively thankless job to be a low-leverage middle reliever with contract options. It usually means constant demotions and promotions, flights to and from Minor League cities. García didn’t mind.
“What helped me was: I know what it was like being out of baseball,” García said. “I know how it feels to do those other types of jobs. It was hard. Now I can appreciate more what I have.”
Still, García hadn’t quite put it all together, posting an ERA north of 6.00 in three of five seasons between 2016-20. And then, pitching for the Cardinals in 2021, it finally clicked. His fastball ticked from the mid-90s to the high 90s, and he started using his two-seamer more frequently, pairing it with a wipeout slider and a newly honed splitter. He ranks above the 90th percentile in both opposing barrel rate and expected slugging percentage, using the fastball over half the time.
“Guy throws 100 mph, ball is moving all over the place,” Padres manager Bob Melvin said. “He’s gotten better as he goes along. … When you have that kind of sinker and it’s coming in there pretty quickly, you’ve got to start your bat early.”
The Padres pro scouting department liked García’s stuff enough to offer him a two-year contract in December. That kind of security was something García had never known before. Thus far, he’s been worth every penny, posting a 3.39 ERA and a 2.60 FIP in a team-high 64 regular season appearances. He’s yet to allow a run in three postseason outings.
On Friday, García returns to the site of his big league breakthrough in 2013, a breakthrough he’d never thought possible when he was out of baseball, hopping from job to job, having come to the realization that he couldn’t quite cut it — as a baseball player or a barber.
On one of those fronts, at least, he was dead wrong.
“Every season after that is special,” García said. “And even more now that we have a chance to win a championship. I want to get there. I want to pitch in the World Series. I want to win a championship. Because that would be awesome, after all that, to win a championship.”