Maybe this is what the San Francisco Giants had in mind all along when they decided to sign Barry Zito to that widely panned seven-year, $126 million contract back in 2006. They must have figured he would be totally worth it one day.
Even if he wasn't totally worth it all the other days.
Whatever sins Zito may have committed as a member of the Giants are forgiven now. They were washed away on Friday night at Busch Stadium as Zito mowed down hitter after hitter in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
The final line for Zito: 7.2 innings, six hits, one walk, six strikeouts, no runs of any kind. He threw 115 pitches and earned the win in a game the Giants won by a final of 5-0 in front of 47,000 semi-stunned Cardinal fans.
But as it always does, the box score is only good for about half the story. In this case, the pitching line it presents obscures Zito's cunning—for lack of a better word—which played a fairly major role in leading the Giants to a win that will return the NLCS to San Francisco for Game 6 and perhaps Game 7 as well.
The Giants could have found themselves in a deep early hole when Zito put men on second and third with nobody out in the second inning, but that's as troublesome as Zito let it get. He punched out Daniel Descalso on a high fastball and then intentionally walked Pete Kozma to bring up opposing pitcher Lance Lynn.
With the crowd going wild, Zito shattered Lynn's bat and got him to roll a tailor-made double-play ball to Brandon Crawford. What appeared to be a rally died with a whimper in roughly three-and-a-half minutes.
Somehow, Zito managed to outdo himself in the fourth inning when he came to the plate with runners on first and third with two outs and three runs already home. Against all odds, he decided to do something that...well, something that pitchers do quite often, really.
And what a bunt it was. Zito stuck the ball perfectly down the third-base line, and David Freese couldn't make the perfect throw he needed to make to get Zito at first. He was safe, and the fourth run of the inning scored for the Giants.
That bunt knocked the wind out of the Busch Stadium crowd and it was smooth sailing for Zito from then on. He took his 4-0 lead and proceeded to allow just three hits over his next 4.2 innings of work. He needed only 33 pitches, 11 in each inning, to get through the fourth, fifth and sixth frames.
While all this was going on, there were a lot of people in the stands and watching at home shaking their heads wondering how the hell Zito was doing it.
I mean, wasn't he supposed to be Barry Zito?
This is actually a pretty good question. On Friday night, Barry Zito pitched a lot like Barry Zito, which isn't always a good thing.
I for one wasn't keeping count, but Zito must have thrown about a dozen "hit me" pitches on Friday night that Cardinals hitters just didn't hit. One look at his at-bat results over at BrooksBaseball.net actually confirms that Zito may have gotten away with at least a few hittable pitches right down the middle of the plate that Cardinals hitters could simply do nothing with.
A pitcher with great stuff gets away with pitches down the middle. Not Barry Zito. Especially not against a Cardinals lineup that scored more runs than all but one other National League team during the regular season.
But who cares about whether or not Zito's performance actually makes sense? He could have gotten crushed, sure, but all that matters in the end is the result. The result in this case was a golden egg as far as the Giants are concerned, one that they had been waiting a long time for.
Go ahead and ask Brian Sabean if he regrets signing Zito now. For that matter, go ask manager Bruce Bochy or pitching coach Dave Righetti if they regret anything about the Zito experience. Go ask any of the players. Go ask any Giants fans in your vicinity.
Most of them will gladly tell you that Game 5 was worth it. Even the pessimistic ones will at least shrug and say, "Hey, if it was a means to an end..."
Indeed. Why fret about the past and the dollars in Zito's bank account? Without him, the Giants' 2012 season would be dead and Zito would have at long last cost the Giants something legitimately tangible in a baseball sense.
And this, my friend, is where your focus needs to be if you're not convinced that one brilliant start isn't good enough to wash away six years of so-not-brilliant starts. Sit down and actually think for a second what Zito's mediocrity actually cost the Giants beyond a whole bunch of almighty dollars. In what ways did he hold them back out on the diamond?
Answer: not many ways, really. Zito has had some bad times in a Giants uniform, but there's really no reason to scapegoat him for anything that's happened in the past.
When Zito went 11-13 with a 4.53 ERA in 2007, the Giants went 71-91 and finished in last place in the NL West by a mile. Even a Cy Young-caliber season from Zito would not have made a difference.
When Zito went 10-17 with a 5.15 ERA in 2008, the Giants went 72-90 and finished 12 games out of first. If he goes 17-10 instead of 10-17, the Giants still miss the playoffs.
When Zito went 10-13 with a 4.03 ERA in 2009, the Giants finished four games out of a playoff spot. Maybe the Giants make the postseason with the old Zito on the hill, but they were in no position to complain seeing how the team's real problem was its inability to score runs. The Giants crossed home plate fewer times than all but four other teams in 2009.
When Zito went 9-14 with a 4.15 ERA in 2010, he didn't stop the Giants from winning the NL West. Nor did he stop them from winning the World Series, as he was left off the postseason roster entirely. His absence was embarrassing, but it was a total non-story the moment the Giants recorded the final out in the Fall Classic against the Texas Rangers.
In 2011, Zito was limited by injuries to nine starts and 13 overall appearances. He did not have a hand in the Giants' disappointing finish to the season.
Was Zito's contract a bust at that point? Absolutely. But calling him a goat would have been going too far. For all his failures, he was never a villain. He was just a mere inconvenience.
He may have never been a villain, but Zito finally became a hero in 2012 by winning 15 games and posting a 4.15 ERA. The Giants were winners in 21 of Zito's 32 starts, including each of the last 11 starts he made to close out the season.
If the Giants had lost half of those, they would not have finished so many games ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers at the end of it all. Zito helped give the Giants some breathing room, and he did so not by getting out of the way, but by pulling his weight like he had never done before in a Giants uniform.
And on Friday night, Zito breathed a little extra life into their 2012 season. Only with a loss would the failure of his contract been complete, as Zito would have finally cost the Giants something significant that they may have gained with anybody else on the mound.
With the win, it's clear that having Zito on the roster this postseason was a good idea. And Zito's not on the postseason roster, of course, unless he's on the regular-season roster. He's not on the regular- season roster unless he signs a seven-year contract way back in 2006.
So just like that, Zito is no longer an inconvenience. On the contrary, he is a major convenience. Dollars be damned.
Granted, the Giants haven't actually won anything yet. They've won a game they needed to win, to be sure, but they still need two more wins to advance to the World Series for the second time in the last three years. And though they got beat Friday, you don't need me to tell you that these Cardinals aren't about to make it easy on the Giants.
However, there's no denying that Zito turned the tide in a major way. The Giants have the momentum now and they're sending the right guys to the hill back at AT&T Park to see this thing through to the end. With Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain lined up to pitch in Games 6 and 7, respectively, the odds of the Giants winning two straight are a hell of a lot better than their odds of winning three straight at the start of the day on Friday.
If they don't win and move on, at least it will be impossible to blame Zito. The season is in the hands of Vogelsong and Cain, not Zito.
Giants fans may as well start the #RallyVogelsong and #RallyCain movements right now. I mean, if #RallyZito can work such wonders for the Giants' most unpredictable pitcher, imagine what wonders the hashtags could work for the Giants' two most dependable starting pitchers in this postseason.
The fans who made the #RallyZito movement such a big thing on Twitter on Friday are the same fans who were asking "Imagine how good the Giants would be if they didn't have Zito?" not too long ago.
Now they're asking a different question: "Where would the Giants be without Zito?!"
This question is only being asked at loud volumes and with a conspicuous air of disbelief.
And why not? A dude with an 84-mile per hour fastball, junk offspeed stuff and a track record with all sorts of ugly numbers on it just dominated a club that seemed to be un-dominatable. What Zito did on Friday night was nothing short of a mirac...
OK, maybe that's going a bit too far. Whatever it was, though, the baseball gods definitely had a hand in it.
And it's about freakin' time. After all they've put Zito through in the last few years, they owed him one.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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