It was the moment that wasn’t supposed to happen.
And although Barry Zito’s return to the majors Sunday afternoon didn’t go particularly smooth, his mere presence on the mound was a victory of sorts.
The A’s dropped a 5-1 game to the Houston Astros that was marked by the lefty’s first big league appearance since Sept. 29, 2013, when he was a member of the Giants. It’s the culmination of a comeback story that began far away from the atmosphere of a major league ballpark.
Zito stepped away from baseball when he finished out a seven-year, $126 million contract with San Francisco. He took the 2014 season off, clearing his head and spending time with family as he pondered what was next for him.
What he discovered was that he still loved baseball -- he still wanted to compete. He re-introduced himself to the game by heading out to a public park and throwing balls into a net, by himself.
“I didn’t know where I’d be,” Zito said during spring training. “I knew I just wanted to put in a solid year of work and get myself as good as I could possibly get myself. If that day came that I had to walk away from the game, I could do it at that point.”
He inked a minor league deal with the A's in February, the team he broke in with and with which he won the 2002 American League Cy Young award. Zito spent a largely successful 2015 season in Triple-A Nashville’s rotation, going 8-7 with a 3.46 ERA. But a promotion never came during the Sounds’ regular season. When their season ended on Sept. 7, Zito figured retirement had finally arrived.
He told reporters last week that he texted friends: “Baseball Rest in Peace: 1985-2015”.
But with the A’s pitching staff ravaged by injuries in recent weeks, A’s general manager Billy Beane called Zito last Monday and offered a return to the majors. After taking time to think about it, Zito joined the A’s and entered into a most unique situation: A 37-year-old veteran, who shifted into retirement mode for a full week, now getting one last chance before he hangs up his spikes for good. Zito’s comments upon joining the A’s indicated he has no doubts he’ll retire after this season.
The lefty entered in the eighth inning of Sunday’s game, with the A’s trailing 3-1. He issued a one-out walk to Jed Lowrie. After dropping one of his trademark sweeping curve balls past Colby Rasmus for a strike, he went to the curve again, and Rasmus drilled it for a two-run homer. But if nothing else, Zito mixed in his curve and changeup effectively at times to play off his fastball during his one inning of work.
Now attention turns to the A’s final homestand, and whether Zito might be tapped to start Saturday’s game against the Giants with former A’s teammate Tim Hudson going for San Francisco.
It’s a storyline everyone is speculating on, though part of it might depend on how Zito continues to fare on the mound in any outings before then.
But Sunday’s appearance provided a pretty nice story on its own, given the road it took Zito to get there.