San Francisco Giants: "Big Z" Filling In Nicely For the "Big Unit"

Andy BenschSenior Writer IAugust 1, 2009

SEATTLE  - MAY 24:  Starting pitcher Barry Zito #75 of the San Francisco Giants pitches against the Seattle Mariners on May 24, 2009 at Safeco Field in Seattle, Washington. The Mariners defeated the Giants 5-4. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

When 45-year-old Randy Johnson injured his throwing shoulder on July fifth against the Astros, Giants fans held their breath. Even before hearing the news that the "Big Unit" would hit the 60 day DL, the San Francisco faithful knew the one-year deal with the five-time Cy Young award winner may be over.

However, in the 22 games since Johnson suffered the injury, there have been four starts in Johnson's No. 2 spot in the rotation and every single one has been superb.

Remember Jonathan Sanchez's no hitter? Well that was a good start, but post All-Star break, Barry Zito has taken over that slot and performed like the Zito of old. Moving Zito to the No. 2 spot in the rotation wasn't a popular decision amongst fans like myself but there is no denying that "Big Z" has performed admirably since the break.

With the way Zito has thrown to begin the second-half, Giants manager Bruce Bochy has to be given some credit for making the change in the rotation especially when you consider Zito's last start before the break.

In the first-half finale against the San Diego Padres, Zito suffered arguably the worst start of his career. After throwing just 4 and one-third innings, the $126 million man had given up 10 hits and nine earned runs.

Therefore, "promoting" Zito to the No. 2 spot in the rotation couldn't have been the easiest decision to make. Yet, so far, it was the right decision.

In three starts so far during the second-half, Zito has posted a 1-1 record while throwing 19 innings, allowing just four earned runs and recorded 16 strikeouts against seven walks.

If those numbers aren't clear enough that "Big Z" is getting it done, then I'll do the math for you. Zito's ERA since the break is a diminutive 1.89 and he owns a respectable 1.31 WHIP.

Add Zito's three starts to Sanchez's no hitter, and the No. 2 spot in the rotation has been absolutely dirty in Johnson's absence. In four starts, Zito and Sanchez have combined for 28 innings, just four earned runs, recording 27 strikeouts, and just seven walks for a 1.28 ERA and a 0.89 WHIP.

With the hot start out of the gate, Zito has at least temporarily put Giants fans, who had wanted to find extra pitching help at the trade deadline, at ease. But the San Francisco faithful had every right to be concerned. Prior to Johnson's injury, Zito had allowed 17 earned runs in 22 and two-thirds innings in his last four starts, which works out to a 6.75 ERA.

Not only had Zito been struggling, but with Sanchez' consistency issues still looming (despite the no-hitter) and Ryan Sadowski starting to falter, the 3-through-5 spots in the rotation were filled with question marks heading into the second-half.

However, despite the 3-7 road trip to begin the second-half, it was clear that the way Zito pitched on the trip, he no longer belonged in the category of question marks. Instead of being grouped with Sanchez and Sadowski as the bottom portion of the rotation, Zito is now in a major groove with Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain at the top.

It may be a tad premature to deem the trio "The Big Three" but 2-3 more quality starts from Zito and that phrase may become frequently used amongst Giants fans.

And if the Giants' former "ace" turned No. 4 starter, turned No. 2 starter can keep up his recent hot streak, he really ought to be considered for "Comeback Player of the Year."

Let's not forget that this is the same Zito that fans (like myself) vehemently booed on opening day 2008, and who continued to struggle in his second year with the Giants. At one point last season Zito was banished to the bullpen, carried a 3-12 record, and sports shows like ESPN's Pardon the Interruption were wondering if it were possible for Zito to lose 20 games.

With all the pressures to live up to his contract and everything that has come with it, Zito may in fact finish with double digit wins and a sub-four ERA this season. Accomplishing those numbers would be a tremendous turn around after seemingly being left for dead.

Even an highly respected Bay Journalist Tim Kawakami suggested the Giants should flat out cut Zito in one of his columns. No matter how far-fetched the idea may have been, it is a testament to how poorly Zito had been pitching. But now, with Johnson on the DL, the Giants need Zito to stay on this roll he's been on if they want to reach the post-season.

If Zito can continue his current groove and get the Giants to the playoffs, it may just be one of the greatest comeback stories in Giants history.