Two years ago, Barry Zito was seen as a US$126 million failure, left off the post-season roster as the San Francisco Giants charged to their first World Series title since the franchise moved from New York in 1958.
On Friday, Zito helped keep the Giants’ season alive, pitching into the eighth inning of a 5-0 shutout that extended their National League Championship Series against the St Louis Cardinals, who were one win away from reaching the World Series.
The 34-year-old Zito pitched 7-2/3 innings, yielding six hits and striking out six for the Game Five victory that kept the Giants alive and sent the best-of-seven series back to San Francisco with the Cardinals leading 3-2.
“I couldn’t be happier for him,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy told reporters. “He’s done a great job for us this year. I don’t know how many times we needed to win this year, he found a way to get it done for us.”
The crafty Zito, who keeps hitters off-balance with a variety of pitches and pinpoint control when he is on, went 15-8 this season and finished with an 8-0 run, after his first five seasons with the club produced a cumulative record of 43-61.
“I see how hard he works, no matter if he’s struggling or doing well. He puts in the time off the field. His preparation is second to none,” Giants catcher Buster Posey added.
Zito was a wonder boy for his first major league team, the Oakland Athletics, helping them to the playoffs five times during his seven seasons there and winning 23 games in 2002.
As a free agent, he opted to make the short hop across the bay to San Francisco, who gave the left-hander a seven-year contract worth US$126 million to pitch for them starting in 2007.
The move to the National League did not go smoothly for Zito, who struggled through injuries and lost some life on his fastball and confidence in his arsenal of pitches.
The low point came when Zito was reduced to the role of cheerleader when he was shunned by the team during the Giants’ rousing run to the Major League Baseball championship in 2010.
“He’s been through a lot, I know,” Bochy added. “You go back to 2010. But this guy, he is some kind of tough. I can remember when I had to tell him that he was not on the postseason roster in 2010. I think he went out and threw a bullpen right away. He understood and he was disappointed. But he kept working and throughout the playoffs he kept himself ready in case something happened and he never got down. And that just shows a lot about his character.”
Even the St Louis starter in Friday’s Game Five, Lance Lynn, marveled at Zito’s performance.
“You never knew what he was throwing,” Lynn said. “Everything was to the opposite side of the plate than you were thinking. That’s what he’s capable of. He cuts it, changes-up, has a big curve he can throw at any side of the plate, at any height, any level. When he’s doing that with the command he has, he’s going to be hard to hit.”
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said Zito gave a pitching clinic.
“He was pitching. He was raising eye level. He was in the top of the zone, just above, on the edges, just off. He was moving in and out, back and forth,” Matheny said. “He was taking speeds off his breaking ball and change-up. That’s what pitching is. You don’t have to have 99 [mph] on your fastball if you can locate and keep hitters off balance.”