SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – During his six years as a Giant, springtime has been cruel to Barry Zito.
He has done more scrambling than a golf pro three trees deep in the woods. In his first year after signing a $126 million contract that might as well be tattooed on his forehead, Zito arrived with a tape measure and a delivery straight out of a Kung Fu movie.
It was quickly scrapped, on the club’s insistence.
That was the first sign: Even after receiving the richest deal for a pitcher in history at that time, Zito knew he needed to regain some velocity and do something desperate to reinvent himself, or he’d be in trouble. Sure enough, he pitched like he lacked confidence during wide swaths of the next five years. He was left off the playoff roster in 2010 – an emasculating experience.
There are sunk costs. Zito was the RMS Lusitania.
It seemed to be reaching a tipping point last spring, when he arrived with a momentum-oriented, “crouching tiger” delivery that seemed to lose stripes with every start. And there was the column in the San Francisco Chronicle that cited an unnamed source as saying Zito was on thin ice and could be released, even with two years and more than $40 million still coming to him.
Zito had a 7.91 ERA last spring and allowed a whopping 44 baserunners – 32 hits and 12 walks – in just 19 1/3 innings. His last two starts were horrific: 5 1/3 combined innings in which he allowed 10 runs on 16 hits (10 extra-base hits) and five walks. He had one strikeout over that span and of 34 batters faced, he only retired 12 without benefit of a tag play on the bases or a sacrifice.
Batting practice couldn’t have been uglier.
As you might recall, Zito stayed back in Arizona while the rest of his teammates broke camp and went north so he could throw one more remedial outing to minor leaguers. Once again, he was implored to set aside the kinesiology textbook and go back to the delivery that made him the 2002 Cy Young Award winner.
He did. And after the Giants were swept in three games to start the season at Arizona, Zito was handed the baseball at Coors Field. You couldn't blame anyone who shielded their eyes.
Zito won. More than that, he threw a shutout.
You might say that Zito might have saved the Giants’ season right then and there. There’s no arguing that he preserved their lives in Game 5 of the NLCS at St. Louis, when he tamed a relentless Cardinals lineup over 7 2/3 shutout innings to send the series back to San Francisco.
And then, pitching in the World Series for the first time, he beat Justin Verlander in Game 1 to set the tone for a four-game sweep.
No surprise, then, that when Zito took the mound for his first mound session of the spring Thursday, he looked like … the Zito of old.
No momentum theories this time. No tape measures or exaggerated movements. Just that high leg kick with those high socks that we’ve all seen before.
If Zito looked a little stronger, it’s because he began throwing off a mound twice a week in early January. He told manager Bruce Bochy he’d gone eight or nine times off a mound before Thursday.
“It’s evident he put in a lot of work in the offseason,” Bochy said. “What goes with that is confidence. He’s coming off a fantastic year. Before that, he’d gone through ups and downs and when you have adversity you work on things. He found himself last year with his delivery and he’s carried that into this spring and he’s throwing the ball with a lot of confidence.”
Zito said he’s still making tweaks here and there, but “not big adjustments. It’s just small adjustments, which is what I do in the season. For me and guys who have been around the game for awhile, it’s just making sure your body can sustain the workload. It’s more about timing and tweaking things.”
There’s no question Zito is in a better frame of mind. That’s a natural byproduct when you hear fans and teammates chanting your name, as they did shortly after receiving the World Series trophy that night in Detroit, or when he walked through the concourse at FanFest.
In the past, fan events had to be source of dread. Even if the insults weren’t thrown his way, the interactions would be stiff and uncomfortable. Now Zito said he can feel the support reigning down on him. It’s only natural that those good vibes would translate to the mound.
“I don’t know where my confidence level is,” he said. “But I just know what I have to do.”
And yes, that involves helping the Giants win another World Series, and maybe put himself in their plans beyond this season. Zito has an $18 million option for 2014 that can vest with 200 innings. If not, the option has mutual language that involves a $7 million buyout.
Zito said he hopes he and the Giants can find something that makes sense for both parties after the season.
“It’s a great team, great guys, great management, great fans, a great ballpark,” said Zito, “and it’s a legacy, a dynasty coming through here.”
Zito said after the Giants won in 2012, one of his first thoughts was of his meeting with agent Scott Boras, Giants managing partner Peter Magowan, club executive Larry Baer and GM Brian Sabean at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills in 2006. Zito recalled Magowan saying his goal was to bring a world championship to San Francisco, and Zito would be a major contributor to achieving it.
“That was one of the first things that flashed in my head after we won, that I was able to contribute to that,” Zito said. “It also flashed in 2010 when I knew I wouldn’t be able to contribute. One was frustrating and one was fulfilling.”
It was pointed out that Zito and Pablo Sandoval, the two players most on the outside looking in at the 2010 championship, were the ones who set the tone against Detroit. Sandoval’s three-homer performance in Game 1 made him the World Series MVP.
“I know Pablo won’t forget those feelings and I know I won’t, either,” Zito said. “I can’t say that fueled me because I don’t operate under that paradigm to prove people wrong. I’d rather do it for personal fulfillment and for the team.
“All that stuff is behind me now,” he said.
Even for starting pitchers, it’s about how you finish.