Top Marlins pitching prospect Jarlin Garcia, who made his major-league debut briefly last month and could return in September if not sooner, was just 16 when his life changed forever.
The native of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, grew up playing soccer and only tried baseball at age 15 — urged by a coach and some friends who recognized his athletic ability.
A year later, he was coming home from baseball practice when he heard sirens in his neighborhood of Pedro Brand. As he got closer and closer to home, he got more and more concerned.
“I thought,” said Garcia, who is now 23, “that my house had burned down.”
Sadly, it was much worse than that.
His beloved little sister, Genesis Mabel, who was just 3½ years old, had drowned in her home after apparently falling into a cistern.
Genesis was the one who would wake Garcia in the mornings, yanking on his shirt and asking him to take her to school. And now — suddenly — she was gone.
“When I got home,” Garcia said of the day of the tragic accident, “I saw my mom destroyed. My dad was asking, ‘How could this have happened?’ “
Garcia felt responsible even though he obviously wasn’t at fault.
Had he not been playing baseball, he couldn’t help but think, maybe Genesis would be alive.
“I promised my mom that I was going to be somebody big,” said Garcia, his voice breaking. “I told her that she would be proud of me one day.”
Garcia, a left-hander, was small in stature when he began playing baseball, standing 5-7 and weighing 143 pounds at 15.
But by the time he had signed with the Marlins two years later, he had sprouted to 6-2 and 165 pounds.
Garcia, who remembered many days growing up when he didn’t have enough to eat, earned a $40,000 signing bonus from the Marlins, money he used to help his family.
It took four more years for Garcia to finally play full-season minor-league ball, and the Marlins — perhaps disappointed by his slow progress — exposed him to the 2014 Rule 5 Draft.
Fortunately for the Marlins, Garcia went unclaimed and remained in the organization.
He had a breakthrough last year when he became a Florida State League All-Star in the High Class A circuit, and was also selected to the Futures Game in which only baseball’s elite prospects are invited.
After the season, the Marlins protected him on their 40-man roster for the first time, a sign that Garcia had finally earned respect and value within the organization.
Garcia started this season at Double A Jacksonville. That’s where his manager, former University of Miami and Marlins infielder Dave Berg, had some angry words for Garcia.
“Get the [bleep] out of my office,” Berg yelled. “We don’t want you around.”
Garcia was shocked … until he saw Berg and the other coaches laughing.
As it turned out, this was Berg’s humorous way of telling Garcia the words he had yearned to hear for so long — he was going to the majors.
Garcia called his parents — Belkis Mercedes and Pedro Pablo — in the Dominican Republic, and the tears flowed. Pedro, not knowing if this were some sort of joke, yanked the phone away from his wife’s hands and had his son repeat the words.
Yes, it’s true, Garcia told him. He was going to “las grandes ligas.”
Garcia — brought up to the majors as insurance for an overtaxed Marlins bullpen — was not used in his four-day stay with the team.
But he learned a lot from watching and also pocketed about $10,000, a virtual fortune for his family back home.
The Marlins are pleased with the investment they’ve made in Garcia, who has above-average control and a low-90s fastball that can touch 95 mph.
Garcia, who has filled out to 6-3½ and 225 pounds, adds an improving curveball and a changeup that has become a weapon due to its late, fading action.
“He has power stuff,” Berg said of Garcia, who Baseball America projects as a No. 4 starter in a big-league rotation. “He just needs to work on the consistency of his breaking pitches.”
As the Marlins’ third-ranked prospect overall, Garcia is No. 1 among the organization’s healthy pitchers now that Tyler Kolek is out for the year due to elbow surgery.
Garcia is 1-2 with a 3.82 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP in eight starts at Jacksonville this season.
His motivation, he said, is clear — Genesis Mabel.
“Every time I pitch, she’s always on my mind,” Garcia said. “She’s been my motor.”
▪ Tuesday: Marlins LHP Adam Conley (3-3, 3.72 ERA) at Minnesota Twins LHP Pat Dean (1-2, 4.15), 8:10 p.m., Target Field.
▪ Wednesday: Marlins LHP Wei-Yin Chen (3-2, 4.25) at Twins RHP Ricky Nolasco (2-4, 4.93), 8:10p.m., Target Field.