With Game One of the 2012 World Series already being quickly followed by Thursday’s follow-up battle between the San Francisco Giants and the Detroit Tigers, the opening memory most people will have tucked away for posterity is the three home runs by Giant slugger Pablo Sandoval — a trio of single game Series dingers attained by only three other players. Yet the wider drama arguably centered around Giants starter and winning pitcher Barry Zito — a man who has swapped the much-deserved status of disparaged rotation dog to that of team savior and fan hero.
Hindsight makes it easy to contend that without the previously terrible Zito’s remarkable bounce-back in the second half of the regular season, San Francisco wouldn’t even be in the World Series — much less leading the favored Tigers 1-0. Yet broader history makes it difficult to put forth that case if you’re among the bitter, life-long Giants fans who’d been clamoring for the 43-61 Zito to be put out of his misery for several seasons now. That’s a group your faithful correspondent belongs to, and acknowledges with something closer to a hats-off to Zito and those Giants officials who (astonishingly) stood by him through it all than a mea culp as such.
Well done Zitty: Giants fans now owe you an SF Bay-load of thanks.
Zito’s victory over Tiger ace (and baseball’s best pitcher) Justin Verlander was a study in contrasts. While Verlander’s usually unhittable 96-mph heaters were being spanked around — and out of — AT&T Park Wednesday, Detroit’s line up of formidable bats struggled with Zito’s penthouse-to-basement curveball, and 84-mph fastball that (being slower than Verlander’s 86-mph change-up) qualifies as “dookie” without even breaking. By changing glacial velocity and regularly hitting his spots, Zito pitched 5 2/3 innings of one-run baseball (Zito had managed to shut out the Tigers until a RBI single in the sixth from Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera) as Zito’s offense pounded their way to the Giants final 8-3 win.
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Sandoval’s three ‘tater pies were the most spectacular element of that group performance — and earned him a place in history next to Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, and Albert Pujols as the only players to attain that single-game Series feat. Yet zoom out from Wednesday’s game and Zito’s victorious performance in it, and you’ll see it snaking backwards into San Francisco’s post-season surge. That wider angle also puts into perspective Zito’s own unbelievable transformation from bum to idol.
Let’s start backwards. The gem Zito threw Oct. 19 against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game Five of the NLCS kept the Giants do-or-die hopes alive, and sent them back to AT&T — where they clinched the pennant three days later. His win over Detroit Wednesday raises Zito’s post-season record to 2-0. Just as importantly, however, the Giants haven’t lost in any of his recent starts, when Zito’s kept things even or close without getting the W.
That’s not surprising given recent history. San Francisco is now unbeaten in Zito’s last 14 outings, during which the lefty won six of his 10 regular season games. Zito’s 15-8 regular season record was a back-ended affair. After finishing June 6-6, Zito went on to win nine of the remaining games he pitched—often halting what risked becoming prolonged slumps in the Giant’s surge into the playoffs. Suddenly, Zito was Dah Man in a club known for its pitching.
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And that is surprising against wider history. Since being signed to a seven-year contract in 2007 for a whopping $126 million, Zito has (let’s be blunt) stunk the joint out. During his first five years with San Francisco, the 2002 Cy Young winner racked up one losing season after another, and that cumulative record of 43-61. Even his 2012 15-8 performance cannot disguise Zito’s reeking 58-69 total record with the Giants — monumental lameness compared to his 102-63 record during seven years with the Oakland Athletics.)
Just as bad, Zito appeared to lose confidence as fast as he lost control, producing outings that were manna from heaven for opposing hitters — and endless hell for Giants fans. Over time, the San Francisco faithful made their confusion and anger at Zito being kept aboard very clear — their boos accompanying his early departure from games, and insults driving him off his Twitter account.
Then it got worse. In 2010, Zito, 9-14, got the temporary heave-ho by being left off the post-season roster as the Giants marched to their first World Series title since coming to San Francisco in 1958. In 2011, a little-used Zito posted a 3-4 record. This spring, he looked worse than ever—yet somehow was selected to make the trip back to the Bay Area. The result, as Joe Levitt of the Bleacher Report notes, was Zito became
…a veritable pariah in San Francisco — a perennial scapegoat for all the city’s ills … Up until the concluding portion of this season, Zito could do no right; no matter how gregarious he was with fans and media. The Giants Faithful watched continually as their $126 million-man offered up 61 losses in a five-year span and contributed seemingly nothing to the team’s winning sentiments.
Then August rolled around, and Zito became Barry again (the amazing A’s pitcher, not that other guy). His pitches were just as slow, but he was hitting spots again, throwing batters what they least expected, and getting more confident as he did so. Meantime, the Giants bats started scoring runs for a pitcher who’d often gotten little support. Things between the lefty and the other eight guys playing with him started to sync, and Mr. “He’ll Give It Up” became the team’s virtual stopper in the push to clinch a playoff spot. Then, when San Francisco faced its darkest hour, Levitt notes:
Zito overcame the greatest obstacle of all — NLCS Game 5 when his team was down 3-1 in enemy territory. Tossing 7.2 innings of shut-out ball against the Cardinals, an offensive powerhouse, was as unpredictable as it was incredible.
Indeed it was. It allowed the Giants to live another two games and make the Fall Classic. Little wonder, then, that with Zito’s spot coincided with game one, Giants manager Bruce Bochy saw Zito as just the guy he wanted taking on Verlander.
He wasn’t the only one. In his pre-game story, Levitt accurately analyzed Zito’s contribution to the Giants’ storybook postseason, and predicted the dynamic he’d created within himself and the Giants would allow San Francisco to beat the Tigers’ ace in the opener. “Barry Zito winning a head-to-head matchup against Justin Verlander?,” Levitt wrote. “Don’t ask me how; just remember the look on the face of the person sitting next to you.”
(MORE: Richard Corliss on Zito’s Old Team, the Oakland Athletics)
Better still, have a look at the mugs — and articles — of Giants fans who have long clamored for Zito to get the big hook (and for good reason), and now find themselves enjoying the benefits of both Zito and the SF front office having ignored their shouts.
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