Zito's zone

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

MINNEAPOLIS – Barry Zito lived la vida loca. He shook his bon-bon. He banged.

"We're Menudo," said Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, pulling one of his favorite aphorisms from the mothballs. "When you reach a certain age, you've got to leave the band. They go on to be Ricky Martin."

Beane grimaced.

"The shame is," he said, "that I knew that."

No, the shame is that Beane, every few years, needs to conjure up the comparison. Here he has Zito, drafted in the first round, reared by the A's, winner of a Cy Young Award at 24 and the man who Tuesday beat Minnesota Twins starter Johan Santana . So what did Beane do in the afterglow of Oakland's stunning 3-2 victory at the Metrodome in Game 1 of the American League Division Series?

Lament, of course, that these are Zito's final days with the A's, the lure of a booty far greater than Oakland can provide awaiting him in free agency. At least Beane could laugh in knowing that Zito's suitors will be paying a few extra million now because Zito was the one who finally slayed Santana.

And, yes, it is apt to give Santana the Goliath treatment. He is a monolith among active pitchers, and the cacophony of the Metrodome only emboldened and empowered him. He had won his last 16 decisions at home, going 12-0 with a 2.19 earned-run average this season, and his two runs yielded over eight innings Tuesday would have held up if not for Zito's insistence on choking out any sort of momentum the Twins thought they had.

"That's why he's Barry Zito, Cy Young Award winner," A's closer Huston Street said. "That's why we want him to stay in Oakland but probably can't afford him. That's about as good as it gets. You're dueling Santana in his house, a place where he's lost two games in the last 100 years. There's not really a tougher place to pitch and come in and do what Barry did."

What he did no one had done in 429 days – and those last spoilers were the A's. Naturally, they shook off such a fact more as coincidence than trend, their preternatural cool not allowing them to gloat.

The A's prefer subtlety.

"I don't feel like we stole one," outfielder Nick Swisher said. "I thought that we took one."

Which was to say: Minnesota is favored again, why? Mainly because of Santana, and Oakland, at least for one afternoon, made him look mortal, while the Twins made Zito – eight innings, four hits, one run, three walks and only one strikeout – look like the second coming.

Not of Sandy Koufax, necessarily, because his curveball wasn't terribly sharp. Nor of Randy Johnson, exactly, because his fastball whimpers as much as it whistles. Zito resembled the second coming of himself, channeling his 2002 form after a September full of struggles.

He moved the ball up and down, side to side and added a third plane by changing speeds. The Twins, patient as 4-year-olds, were happy to oblige Zito's dares, and they wound up on the bench, shaking their heads at broken bats and batted balls that lacked oomph.

"When you look at Barry and look at the radar gun, it's 85, 86," A's third baseman Eric Chavez said. "I think that's why people don't say he's a No. 1: He doesn't have No. 1 stuff. But he's capable of going out there and pitching like a No. 1."

Due to a confluence of factors – booming business, big TV contracts and other streams adding to teams' largesse – he'll get paid like a No. 1 this offseason, too. Five years at $75 million certainly isn't out of the question. Should Zito twirl a few more gems in the postseason, it could creep higher.

So Oakland, knowing the inevitability of Zito's departure is the same as Mark Mulder's and Tim Hudson's and Jason Giambi's and Miguel Tejada's and Johnny Damon's, is trying to appreciate the salad days. The A's patted Zito on the back and butt enough to leave permanent hand prints. With "SexyBack," not exactly a clubhouse staple, searing through the speakers, they talked about advancing in the playoffs, something the A's never did between 2000 and 2003, when they made the postseason four consecutive seasons.

Amid the praise and pride, Zito slipped off his uniform, tugged a brown sweater over his head and stuffed a bottled energy drink into a too-tight jean pocket.

"This is right up there with the elimination game in Yankee Stadium my rookie year, beating Clemens, getting the series back to Oakland," he said. "Being Game 1, this is probably bigger."

Zito reminisced for a minute more, then excused himself. He had earned his departure.

Down the hall he walked, away from the Twins' clubhouse, where the team sat on folding chairs, stunned and shocked. They respected Zito, and they liked his style, and they thought he pitched an incredible game, and still, give them the scenario all over again – Game 1, Santana at home, against Barry Zito – and 100 times out of 100 they'd take it.

"I would've bet my money on Johan," Twins outfielder Rondell White said. "I'll bet that any day."

On Tuesday, the A's took that bet and won. They had faith in Barry Zito, and they needed it. The band hasn't broken up just yet.

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