Barry Zito threw 7 2/3 scoreless innings in the Giants' NLCS Game 5 victory over the Cardinals. (AP)
ST. LOUIS – Above every locker in the visiting clubhouse at Busch Stadium is a nameplate. After the biggest game of his life Friday and one of the most unlikely performances in recent baseball annals, Barry Zito sat in front of his stall and wore the sort of grin owed a man who just saved his team's season. The placard over his head bore his No. 75. The words atop the locker directly to the left of Zito's hung with far greater significance.
LOST N FOUND, they read, and either the clubhouse attendants at Busch Stadium have a wicked sense of humor or this was just another delicious diamond to a night already encrusted with them. The fat one in the middle was obvious: Barry Zito, once the highest-paid pitcher in history, now after years of regression a $126 million punch line, had spun 7 2/3 shutout innings in a win-or-go-home game at a hostile ballpark without throwing a single pitch harder than a decent high schooler could muster.
Never did the radar gun register even an 86-mph pitch from Zito as he neutered a St. Louis Cardinals offense ravenous for left-handed pitching in a 5-0 victory that sent the NLCS back to AT&T Park for Game 6 Sunday. Zito's fastball topped out at 85.9 mph, averaged 84.5 mph and still finished off half of his six strikeouts with the Cardinals hitters succumbing to his Provel-quality cheese.
The Giants won for the 13th straight time with Zito starting, setting a record for consecutive victories with a guy who throws less than 7 mph harder than the league's only knuckleballer. That's the thing: This is not some new, reinvigorated, alternate version to the guy who spent the previous five years urging Messrs. Merriam and Webster to update their dictionary with his picture next to the word albatross. Barry Zito, 34, is still a mediocre-at-best pitcher who, when he can avoid walks – and his only one Friday was intentional – has a puncher's chance. And he happened to connect a haymaker at an imperative time, one that if San Francisco can resurrect itself from another impossible series deficit would go a long way to making up some of that sunken cash.
"I hope it means the world to him," Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti said. "He has handled some pretty low stuff."
Righetti has tried to hold Zito's hand and Giants manager Bruce Bochy too,except they've also been a part of his most seminal moments, especially his nadir: not even putting him on the postseason roster in 2010 when the Giants won the World Series. Zito got his ring and can call himself a champion, sure, but what he swallowed that October has been like what mom told you about a wad of gum: something that will take years to digest.
"It was certainly a huge blow just personally to be left off that roster," Zito said. "But you've got to be professional. You can't pout and such like that."
Zito never did, never publicly at least. He didn't bitch, he didn't question his bosses, he didn't mutiny. He blamed himself, and he vowed to get better, and even if he did only incrementally – his predilection to walk himself out of innings has abated some, though a receding strikeout rate has mitigated its effect – Zito never quit. And there is something so impressive about that.
His arm betrayed him, forsaking the 90 mph of his prime for the slop with which he works today. Zito tried everything to discover his old self. It was too far gone, and over the life of his Giants contract, it showed. Since 2007, when Zito signed his seven-year deal, 37 pitchers have exceeded 1,000 innings. Among them, Zito has the second-worst ERA (4.47), fourth-most walks (444), fourth-fewest complete games (three), fifth-most losses (69), sixth-fewest strikeouts (701) and sixth-fewest victories (58).
The criticism of the signing isn't just revisionism. It was lambasted across the game at the time, and the Giants long ago gave up trying to rationalize it, instead trying to explain what led to their flawed decision.
"He was durable," former Giants owner Peter Magowan said, "and we thought a leader, and he had a record, and he wanted to play for the Giants, and we thought he would, you know, be wonderful to market the team, and, uh, he's had his problems."
Enough that about 24 hours before the game, Giants fans took to Twitter and created a coagulant to keep Zito from bleeding their season out. The hashtag #RallyZito spread fast, trended worldwide and accompanied practically every Zito tweet; and rally he did as the Giants capitalized on a Lance Lynn error for a four-run fourth inning that busted open the game.
"I tried Twitter a couple of years ago," Zito said, "and it was a pretty devastating experience for me."
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Well, yeah. The Internet is a graveyard for Zito's career, full of wrath and disappointment. If he were judged strictly on his performance, it would be mean. The contract did something more. It turbocharged the feelings toward Zito. He was bad – and he was making $126 million, which kept the Giants from going after the bat they needed. The anger festered, and Zito's Cy Young season with the Oakland A's was but a distant memory, a wish left to fiction.
"It has been tough," said Giants starter Matt Cain, whose $127.5 million deal this season displaced Zito's as the biggest in the club's history. "And he didn't worry about that. He was in the moment. And there was no better place to be."
There was no better person to be, either, carving up the Cardinals with stuff Righetti said "you end up … learning to make your friend." Zito didn't morph into Tom Glavine or Jamie Moyer or a pitcher who compensated for diminished velocity with nonpareil command. He was a baseball cockroach, doing just enough to stay alive, just enough not to get crushed under the weight of a sheet of paper with three commas and six zeroes.
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A group of friends outside the Giants clubhouse awaited Zito about 30 minutes after the game ended. He went person to person with hugs before seeing "Glee" star Matthew Morrison, who had sung the national anthem.
"And an RBI?" Morrison said. "What?!?"
During that fourth inning, Zito pushed a picture-perfect bunt down the third-base line. Gregor Blanco booked home, Zito beat out the first bunt single of his career and that set the stage for a theater geek, of all people, to raise an eyebrow at his baseball prowess.
Such is the life of Barry Zito, professional punching bag. He laughs it off because baseball never was the thing that dominates his life like it does so many in the game. He had other interests, other hobbies, other dreams. People around the game considered him different, and in baseball, that's not always a compliment. It should be, of course, because were it not, Zito may have left the game long ago, the vise of failure unrelenting.
Instead, he was here, at the stage of his greatest triumph, and San Francisco was indebted for it. Zito traded his backward baseball cap for a fedora, his jersey for a checked shirt and heather cashmere sweater, and his carrying the Giants for a green Swiss Army backpack. All those years were lost, and there was nothing he could do to recapture them or scrub them from history. His alternative, then, was simple.
He found himself for one sparkling October night.
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