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Friday, July 8, 2011

Zito: the steady alternative to flighty Sanchez

Jonathan Who?

It has come to this. Barry Zito has stepped in as the mature, steady and collected alternative to the unpredictable, flighty and erratic junior left hander, Jonathan Sanchez.

Yes, the same pitcher whom most fans have wished would JUST GO AWAY AND TAKE HIS MILLIONS WITH HIM now commands a new thought: CAN THIS BE REAL?

Can Barry Zito have won a third straight start, perhaps the best of them all, with eight innings of four-hit ball while walking not a single batter and striking out a season-high seven? The winner of a taut, crisply played 2-1 win over the pesky Padres?

It is in the books; you can look it up.

It may be time for fans to start rethinking Zito as the real deal, not some ersatz plug-in for the starter-in-waiting Sanchez.

Zito was asked afterward what was working: "I had command of everything," he said. "I had command of my curve and changeup, mixing it up with a decent fastball."

If you've watched him closely, Zito is not smiling much these days. Not for a lack of humor or goodwill. But he has the zoned-in look of a man with purpose, the dark glare of vendetta in his eyes.

TV color man Mike Krukow made a good point about Zito's time in the minor leagues.

"He had time to get himself right," Krukow said. "He took time getting his mechanical flaw out of his system. And now he has full command of knee-high location. Before, it was common to see him lose that changeup up to right-handers."

Now, he has such great consistency with his off-speed stuff, Krukow said. He's got late movement and finish to his delivery. As Bip Roberts added in the post-game CSNBA show, "it's tough to differentiate between the fastball, curve and changeup" because of the similar finish to his delivery on each pitch.


Zito had faced the indignity of Giants' management stretching out his rehab way past the time he'd recovered from his foot injury. He'd weathered a similar, justifiable, slap in the face last fall, kept off the active post-season roster, left standing idly by as his teammates celebrated their world championship run.

He undoubtedly heard the loud and abrasive complaints from the fan base as the date of his return neared: Release him. Trade him. Stick him in the back of the bullpen and let him out only as a mop up man.

Meanwhile, he was down, first in San Jose, then in Fresno, apparently working on his mechanics, sharpening his delivery, steeling his resolve.

Because, since his return, Zito has been a different pitcher than the one whose injury was quietly cheered by the fans (and, possibly even by Giants management, who loved the convenience of putting him in storage while they figured out what to do with him).

Baseball fate works in peculiar and beguiling ways.

Just as Zito was preparing to return to San Francisco, Sanchez' performances became consistently errant,  his wildness canceling out his hit-and-miss stuff; his vacant, spacey mental drift on the field baffling.

Zito had pitched well in his rehab, including a two-hit shutout in his final start. But that was against a bunch of minor leaguers. He had to prove himself in the big leagues, and did quite well winning his first two starts, including a gutsy performance in Detroit in which he pitched on three days rest, waited out a three-hour rain delay, and turned in six shutout innings in what turned out to be a 15-3 win.


But it didn't seem all too real to Giants fans. They had to see it in person, see what he could do in front of the exacting throngs who were all too ready to be justified in their skepticism.

He'd retired the Padres' first nine hitters, and been handed a 1-0 lead on Eli Whiteside's solo home run in the bottom of the third.

But it wasn't until the fourth inning, when Zito got into and out of a jam that the fans might have started to appreciate what the 33-year old lefty was up to.

The inning started with a single and stolen base, and then an infield single to put runners at first and third. Zito then got a break when Jason Bartlett was called out on a stolen base attempt though replays showed he'd hit the bag before the tag (and continued on to spike second baseman Bill Hall, who had to leave the game).

Instead of second and third and no outs, the Padres had a runner on third with one out. But Zito still had to pitch through the heart of the order to get out of the jam. Chase Headley, one of the hottest hitters in the National League, got ahead of the count 3 and 1, but Zito somehow got in on his hands and induced an infield pop out.

Zito jumped ahead of cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick, 0-and-2, with two beautiful rainbow curves, one fouled, one admired.

That's when the crowd seemed to awaken to Zito's performance. Typically, with two strikes and two outs, the home crowd rises and roars anticipating a strikeout. In this moment, a smattering of fans began hesitantly to cheer, as if not fully prepared to believe Zito had a strikeout in him. The hesitance also may have come from the deep skepticism still bracing most fans.

But, the roar got louder as Zito peered in for the sign. And fans erupted in applause, no doubt a bit stunned, when Zito blew an 84 MPH eye-high fastball past Ludwick to end the inning and strand Chris Denorfia at third.

Zito got through another jam in the fifth, after a one-out double by former Giant farmhand, Jesus Guzman. First, Pablo Sandoval made a dazzling, diving stop deep in the hole to rob Orlando Hudson of a hit and keep Jesus Guzman from scoring. And, then, on a payoff pitch to No. 8 hitter, Rob Johnson, Zito nailed a changeup on the outside corner for a strikeout to close down the threat.

The Giants picked up an insurance run on a clutch two-strike off-field single by the veteran outfielder, Pat Burrell, just in time for Zito to give it right back in the seventh on a home run to Ryan Ludwick. But he bounced back by striking out Cameron Maybin on a 73 MPH curve and inducing Guzman to  ground out.

He closed out his performance with a 1-2-3 eighth, 108 pitches in the books, and fans cheering him while pinching themselves.


  1. With so little detail in the game stories from the Bay papers, i'm finding it great to read your blog. Especially with today's stories being just about Sabean and Beltran. Especially here in Bremen Germany. (Yes, there's a contingent of G-Men and G-Women here.)

    I'm pleasantly surprised by Zito's turnaround, and i can't say i knew he had it in him. But the Jints need him to be sharp. Especially as he ate up innings for the taxed bullpen.

    PS Sabes. Be very careful about giving up anything, these under-performering hitters are getting the job done by playing as a team, unlike most in MLB.

  2. Are you serious, 50 wins by the All-Star break? This is the most unbelievable season I have ever watched. The twists and turns have been compelling and unmatched by any team in the league. I can't wait for the Showtime series to start and see how they captured this stuff.