Trip to Minors gives Zito new perspective
Veteran rediscovers joy of playing baseball on rehab stint
SAN FRANCISCO -- It didn't take long for Bruce Bochy to notice that something about Barry Zito had changed. It didn't have anything to do with his polished mechanics or his clean bill of health, either.
As soon as the left-hander returned from his final Minor League rehab start, his attitude seemed different, Bochy said. Zito appeared to be happier, more relaxed, less concerned with worrying about the big picture. More than anything, he showed a greater level of gratitude for all the things he had, particularly being able to pitch at the Major League level.
That realization probably didn't come the way Zito wanted. After suffering a right mid-foot sprain on April 16, the 33-year-old lefty missed a start for the first time in his 12-year career. That time off turned into more than two months without a Major League start, as Zito worked through plenty of rehab workouts followed by two games apiece for Class A San Jose and Triple-A Fresno.
At one point during his recovery, Zito admitted he didn't know what the next step was on his rehab schedule. He'd never been on one before.
After being activated from the 15-day disabled list Saturday, Zito will take the mound for the second game of the Giants' doubleheader against the Cubs at Wrigley Field on Tuesday, bringing with him a completely renewed sense of perspective.
"You do it for so many years and you don't miss a turn. Then you do, and you kind of forget all the joy that comes with being out there," Zito said. "It just teaches you to really focus on your day-to-day responsibility and not get too caught up in the big picture. When you do that, things take care of themselves."
Zito said his trip through the Minors helped him gain some of that perspective. Seeing the younger players work so hard and enjoy the game as much as they do, all without the perks associated with being a Major Leaguer, inspired the 2002 American League Cy Young Award winner to remember something he had long since forgotten.
"It's all about baseball. It's all about having fun and enjoying the game," Zito said. "That's what they do. I've definitely been enjoying the game a lot."
He dropped about $6,000 or $7,000 on meals for his Minor League teammates over his four rehab starts, as the tradition goes. Granted, Zito is signed to a seven-year, $126 million contract, but the gesture was less about money than his appreciation for the players.
"Those boys need it. They work hard down there, and they don't get a lot to show for it," he said. "It's a good opportunity to help them out."
Zito also helped them out on the field, tossing a two-hit shutout in his last rehab outing that will send him to the mound Tuesday night fully confident that his arm is ready to go -- and potentially even better than it was earlier this season.
Fresno manager Steve Decker said Zito's command of his trademark 12-6 curveball was particularly on point in that start, making his fastball more effective. When hitters have to respect his curve, Decker explained, even an 85 or 87 mph fastball feels like it's coming at 89 or 90 mph. If Zito can maintain the movement he had working in his final outing with the Grizzlies, he should be in good shape going forward.
In three starts before going on the DL, Zito walked nine batters, gave up 12 hits, struck out six and pitched to a 6.23 ERA. But he used his time away to tweak his mechanics, driving down the mound a little more than usual and increasing the movement on his curveball.
Those small changes paid big dividends, as he had excellent command of all his stuff and threw 118 pitches on a 95-degree night for Fresno, striking out seven and walking only two.
But Zito's most noticeable adjustment has come off the mound, he said. Bochy caught on quickly, as did Decker, who also played with Zito in 2000 in the Athletics' farm system.
"Enlightenment for players comes in many different ways. Sometimes it happens when you have kids. Sometimes it happens when you go back to the Minor Leagues and you see how hard guys work," Decker said. "When he came down here, it was just like when he was a young prospect.
"When you make that jump back to the big leagues, it gives you that boost of confidence that, 'You know what? I feel good about myself.' He succeeded, and hopefully he can carry that into the games up there."
The Giants are hoping the same thing, as Zito will be right back in the five-man rotation with Jonathan Sanchez now on the disabled list. But Bochy sounded confident in Zito's ability to keep the ball rolling, and fellow starter Matt Cain said he was looking forward to having the lefty back.
"I know he's itching to get back out there. We're definitely excited," Cain said. "We're pumped for him. We'll be rooting for him, obviously, on Tuesday. It'll definitely be really nice."
And it will be a relief for Zito, who said he has been "counting the days" until his comeback. While it hasn't been that long since April 16, all things considered, it's certainly fair to say Zito has come a long way since his last Major League start.
"Sometimes you forget how special this game is, especially playing at this level. You come through all the levels, and you get reminded of that," Zito said. "This is a long way from low-A ball and rookie ball and things like that. It's a real blessing to do it up here."
Adam Berry is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.