His exorbitant contract only served to sharpen the focus of the spotlight he pitched under in his early years with the Giants, until his repeated failures crossed into the realm of banality. Fans eventually became numb to his weekly debacles, to the point where anything short of abysmal collapse was like playing with house money.
However, this season Zito has turned things around.
He's been inconsistent at times and when he's pitching poorly the results are usually more severe than anyone this side of Tim Lincecum. But he ended the season on a high note by winning eight games after the All-Star break while the Giants went 11-0 in his last 11 regular season starts.
But is Barry Zito really a "feel-good" story yet, or is his most recent success being blown out of proportion?
Zito earned his postseason starts, that much is clear. Yes, he benefited from Lincecum's struggles, but had Lincecum earned the nod over Zito in the NLDS, Zito very well may have immediately stepped into Madison Bumgarner's role, given the young lefty's issues this October. Either way, Zito pitched his own way into the two starts he has made.
In the first start, facing elimination and a two-game deficit in the series against Cincinnati, Zito came out with awful stuff and his location was lacking. Without the luxury of being able to let Zito work things out, Bruce Bochy pulled him with two outs in the third inning and a tenuous one-run lead.
Had this been a start in the middle of August, Zito might have put in a gritty effort and escaped with something like five innings and three or four runs allowed. Regardless, he came up short and the Giants won the game in large part because of every pitcher used in the game but Zito.
What can Zito do to regain the fans good graces?
Last night against the Cardinals was an entirely different story. The Cardinals came into the game with a record of 39-12 against left-handed starting pitchers and Zito, no matter how well he may be throwing at the time, is hardly the type of pitcher one would expect to reverse that trend, especially in St. Louis and facing elimination.
Had Zito struggled early he would have been on the same short lease that he was on against Cincinnati. With Lincecum having been used the previous night and Bumgarner apparently untrustworthy, a short outing from Zito could have been disastrous and would most likely have closed the book on the 2012 San Francisco Giants.
If that happened, forget about those last 11 regular season starts. Zito, along with Bumgarner, Lincecum and, to a lesser extent, Matt Cain, all bear the brunt of the blame for the series loss.
But instead Zito turned in a real yeoman's effort. He came into the game with command of and movement on all of his pitches like he's rarely had with the Giants. When Zito has good command he's become much tougher to hit than in years past. Last night was a clinic in changing speeds and location. He had several swinging strikeouts on high fastballs, something a pitcher with an 84mph fastball only gets away with if he's dominating the bottom half of the zone with every pitch and every speed he can feature.
Now the team comes home with a low-grade tsunami's worth of momentum and a chance to clinch a postseason series in San Francisco for the first time since they knocked the Cardinals out of the NLCS in 2002.
So does one great start under the most dire of circumstances, earned largely on the back of an incredible second half of the season, undo the previous five years of ineptitude?
Not yet, but by giving his team another chance, he's also given himself another shot at redemption. It's a tall order, but if the Giants win the World Series and Zito turns in another effort good enough for a win, or maybe two, he'll have erased all but the most horrific moments between 2007-2011.
And why wouldn't he? Even if the Giants don't go the whole way and ride on his shoulders for part of the journey, he has still come a long way. Truth be told, a lot of the ire directed at him boils down to his contract, something that Brian Sabean bears the responsibility for, not Zito. Who wouldn't sign an outlandish contract if it was put in front of them? Should he give back about 75 percent of what he's earned thus far? In a perfect world, yes. Does he accept certain responsibilities for signing for so much? Sure, but one of those responsibilities is to be an integral part of a World Series-winning team.
After last night, Zito has done a lot to hold up his end of the bargain this year.