Giants hope Zito seizes chance to make impact
Left-hander focused as he learns to let go of past struggles
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Every baseball season creates a different set of circumstances and so it is this year for the Giants and veteran left-hander Barry Zito.Jonathan Sanchez is gone, traded to Kansas City in the deal that netted outfielder Melky Cabrera. Ryan Vogelsong, last season's feel-good story, is just returning from a back injury and may not make the active roster when camp breaks in two weeks. Thus, the Giants need Zito to rise to the occasion more than ever behind Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner. "It's important, and I think Barry knows that, too," manager Bruce Bochy said on Tuesday after Zito worked the first five innings and threw 83 pitches in a 4-3 loss to D-backs at Salt River Fields. "It's vital that all these guys have some good years for us, the type of years we expect, and that's including 'Z.'" That Zito hasn't performed as advertised in the first five years of his seven-year, $126 million contract with the Giants is an understatement. He's 43-61 with a 4.55 ERA for the Giants, this precipitous falloff coming after a seven-year 102-63, 3.55 ERA stint with the A's that earned him the big bucks as a free agent.
It all seemed to hit rock bottom in 2010 when Zito slumped that September and was left off the roster of all three postseason series as the Giants won the World Series for the first time since 1954. Matters then became much worse.Zito was involved in a car accident in Los Angeles last year just as the Giants were about to open the season against the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. He wore a neck brace to the ballpark, but still made his scheduled start on April 3. Two weeks later against the D-backs at Chase Field, Zito dived forward to catch a pop bunt by Joe Saunders in front of the mound, spraining his right foot when he came down awkwardly. The injury placed him on the disabled list for the first time in his career. Not only did it end his personal streak of 356 regular-season starts without having missed one because of an injury, but it opened the door for Vogelsong, who was called up from the Minors to replace him in the rotation. Vogelsong became an All-Star, and when Zito returned he ultimately reinjured the foot. Win or loss, good numbers or bad, Zito always was durable. Now he didn't have that. He started nine games last year and appeared in 13. "I'm sure there was way worse that could have happened," Zito said about 2011. "I'm still alive. I still have my family. It's not a doomsday scenario." Still, make no mistake about it: It was a very tough period for Zito, a highly intelligent player. "Yeah, it was," he said. "I've dealt with that whole thing. That's why I'm here today and I'm a better man for it. You never expect to get hurt, especially being so durable for such a long time. You just adjust. You get back on your rehab. You get back on the horse and keep working hard every day at the yard." Zito knows there's nothing that can be done about the past, but he does have control of his immediate future. The way the contract is structured, both parties are now at the top end of the pay scale. The Giants still owe him $46 million guaranteed over the course of the next three seasons: $19 million this year and $20 million next year. They have a $22 million option for 2015 with a $7 million buyout. There's not much doubt at this point which way that will go. Still, Zito is working hard at it. He said he spent the winter working on the plane of his pitches and a delivery that comes more over the top, dropping the ball lower in the strike zone. Zito's fastball recently hasn't been much faster than 87-89 mph, and when his breaking pitches flatten out, plus sit up in the zone, he gets pounded, as his 1.41 WHIP during the San Francisco years attest. Zito always had the mindset that he was the best. Among the A's group that included Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, he was the Cy Young Award winner and top dog. When he moved across the Bay to San Francisco in 2007, he said he would protect the back of Barry Bonds as the left-handed slugger plodded toward and eventually broke Hank Aaron's all-time home run record. And when he was eclipsed by Lincecum, he maintained he would work his butt off to try to gain back the status of No. 1 in the rotation. With his head on straight, Zito has the chance to be there again. He's just decided to take a very different approach. He realizes there's a real possibility for him to make an impact in San Francisco this season and that he has at least 46 million reasons to succeed. "It doesn't do me much good to wrap my head around it," he said. "So what I focus on is, 'What are my duties today?' I've got my routine every day when I come to the yard. Coaches make the rest of the decisions. So it really doesn't benefit me to shoot for this or do that or whatever. If I dominate my responsibilities every day things are going to be all right."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.