Ten years later, Justin Verlander in Barry Zito's former role as best pitcher in baseball

Les Carpenter
Yahoo! Sports

SAN FRANCISCO – In another decade, another time, the forgotten pitcher was once the dominator: a name discussed with both fear and awe. In another decade, another time, Barry Zito was Justin Verlander – maybe not a man blessed with a scorching fastball – but the possessor of a breathtaking curve and enough guile to confound batters who waved meekly at his pitches.

In another decade, another time, Barry Zito once held a Cy Young award and the title of best pitcher in baseball just as Verlander does now. People spoke excitedly about his limitless future. When he became a free agent at 27, the event was an auction and the winning bid would be more than $100 million. Then his fastball, which wasn’t that fast by big league standards, mysteriously slowed.

Now at 34, he is something of a baseball burnout, starting the first game of the World Series against Detroit’s Verlander because the San Francisco Giants had no one else to send out there.

Could there really be two more different men on the same mound at AT&T Park come Wednesday night? Verlander is as ferocious as Zito is soft. Verlander’s pitches roar at speeds measured at more than 100 mph. His unshaven face only accentuates the fury that burns from piercing eyes. He is a man who comes not to fool around but to intimidate.

Zito’s unshaven face leaves the impression of a man who just woke up – a man whose wide eyes seem to wear the wonder and insecurity of a pitcher who once owned the game and lost all that made him great. He salvaged a fading career with a fine final few months and saved the Giants’ season with a brilliant start in a desperate NLCS Game 5. Now, he has left his teammates hoping he has somehow found the part that made him great in 2002 even as is fastball hums at a tempting 84 mph.

Ask the men in this Series who have faced Verlander and Zito and they say the pair have nothing in common. A hitter’s memory can’t get past the blazing Verlander fastball. The gentle, dabbling pitches Zito has thrown in recent years make it impossible for anyone to draw a correlation. The first game of the World Series presents the ultimate in contrasts: power vs. savvy. Baseball’s current intimidator versus its one-time golden child.

Around the Tigers, Verlander’s intensity is something of a civic asset, a fire they don’t dare touch lest they feel the burn. When someone wondered if maybe there was a calmer, more easygoing side to the Tigers pitcher, Detroit catcher Gerald Laird thought for a moment Tuesday before saying: “No, he’s tightly-wound.”

[Related: Justin Verlander prepares for second World Series start of his career]

Players say Verlander has to win at everything. The pitchers’ batting practice – a rare and often half-hearted exercise in the American League – turns into a raging battle. Casual clubhouse card games have a frosty tension whenever Verlander is in the group. Even a light-hearted golf game on a sunny day carries an uncomfortable rigidness.

“He’s making me putt one-footers,” Laird said shaking his head. “I’m like ‘Come on dude, you’re making me do this?’ ”

In Zito, the Giants talk about a less-ruthless, sometimes silly man. Back when he dominated baseball in 2002 by winning 21 games with a 2.75 ERA, the portraits of Zito were that he was a carefree pitcher whose uniqueness fit well in the raucous clubhouse of the Oakland Athletics. His San Francisco teammates speak of someone friendly but more subtle. “He’s very quiet,” teammate Xavier Nady said.

“I’d say he’s very funny,” added pitcher Clay Hensley. “He has a lot of off-the-cuff stuff that is pretty dry. It takes you a long time to get it. But then the whole dugout is cracking up.”

On Tuesday the pitchers couldn’t have been more different as they spoke at an obligatory pre-World Series press conference. Verlander strode into the small interview room with confidence, draping himself across three front row seats when a chair was not provided for him at the head table. He laughed easily but he also battled questions he didn’t like.

At one point he talked about the rush of being in a World Series his rookie year and not appreciating the magnitude of the games until a couple of years had passed. He also talked about Zito and watching, as a college student, his World Series opponent when he played for Oakland.

“[It] was just unbelievable and he still has a good curve ball,” Verlander said. “But the thing back then when he was with Oakland was just unreal.”

Then he smiled. He wanted to make a joke, something about how he will have to bat on Wednesday night and will have to face that curve ball. But even in trying to be funny his words were laced with a competitive zeal.

“And I hope not to see it,” he said.

[Also: Giants announce World Series rotation and Tim Lincecum isn’t in it]

A few minutes later Zito came into the same room, sat at the same table and spoke with less certainty. Many times he didn’t even look at his questioner as Verlander had, but instead stared blankly at the back of the room. At first, he didn’t seem to want to discuss the past, including the indignity of being left off the Giants’ postseason roster in their championship run in 2010. He said there were too many things that made him more effective as a pitcher this year and he didn’t want to pinpoint any one or two.

Finally, he started to talk about his psyche.

“I feel like I’ve grown up in this game, you know?” he said. “When I came up in Oakland I felt like I was a boy in the game. You have talent and you just keep going to the next level and all of a sudden everyone is kind of looking at you and there’s fans chanting your name and stuff and you’re not really sure why.

“And then to mature in this game is a big deal,” he continued. “That process is a huge part of becoming a free agent, going to a new team, signing a bid deal and dealing with everything that comes with it. So I feel like an adult in the game now.”

It was all he felt like revealing about himself.

[Related: Five early story lines for the World Series]

When the Tigers talked about their pitcher on Tuesday they talked about fire. They told stories of how he actually gets faster as the game goes on, regularly starting his fastball in the mid-90s and moving it up to 100 mph in the later innings.

“When guys get on base, he gets tougher,” Laird said. “You can tell he gets tougher because the hitters’ swings get worse.”

The Giants spoke of a newfound confidence Zito appears to have. They say he has had to learn to pitch again after his fastball went away and the curve sat by itself with nothing to set it up. Backup catcher Eli Whiteside caught Zito’s bullpen sessions between starts the last two seasons and marveled at the way his pitches were so crisp, crossing the corners of the plate, looking so unhittable. He was always surprised when the same Zito never showed up in the games. The pitches that hit corners were now outside or left flat over the middle of the plate.

Suddenly this summer the pitcher from those off-day sessions was the same one in the games. How it happened, no one is sure. Maybe belief. Maybe it’s just one of those things that sometimes happens to pitchers.

“He figured it out,” Whiteside said. “He’s trying to pitch to contact now. He’s making hitters get themselves out.”

It is no longer another decade, another time. And on Wednesday night the best pitcher in baseball will hike up the same AT&T mound as the man who once held that title. It is a story of domination. It’s a story of redemption.

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