Zito worked hard for effortless gem

BY Ken Rosenthal • October 19, 2012

The moments like this, the moments that come out of nowhere, they’re part of the game’s magic. Barry Zito’s success with an 85-mph fastball, that’s magical, too. But let’s not mistake the reality here.

What you saw Friday night was the result of hard work and sheer will and uncommon professionalism. What you saw Friday night, with Zito pitching 7 2/3 shutout innings to save the Giants’ season, was absolutely earned.

Remember 2010? Zito did not even make the Giants’ postseason roster, did not participate in the team’s final run to its first World Series title in San Francisco — and first since 1954.

Looking back, he called it “a huge blow.” But manager Bruce Bochy recalled that after telling Zito the news, the veteran left-hander went out and threw a bullpen session right away. Staying ready, preparing to help his team, just in case.

That’s who Zito is to his teammates — not a $126 million, free-agent bust, but a player who never makes excuses, constantly seeks to improve and, in Bochy’s words, is “a standup guy.”

Zito, 34, deserved Friday night, deserved to beat the Cardinals 5-0, and send the National League Championship Series back to San Francisco with the Giants trailing, three games to two.

He deserved it because of the artistry with which he pitched, deserved it because of all of the doubts he had to overcome, deserved it so much, he achieved the near-impossible, turning Twitter in his favor.

“I tried Twitter a couple of years ago and it was a pretty devastating experience for me,” Zito said, drawing laughter in the postgame interview room. “I learned not to check the inbox.”

Well, check again, Barry.

#RallyZito, a “movement” started by Giants fans on Friday, was a trending topic not just in San Francisco, but worldwide. Fans changed their avatar photos to pictures of Zito, making creative use of social media to support their team.

“Maybe we should have Rally Vogelsong now,” Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt, referring to Ryan Vogelsong, who will be the team’s pitcher in Game 6 on Sunday night (FOX, 7:37 p.m. ET).

Zito made such a thought possible, baffling a predominantly right-handed-hitting team that many viewed as a difficult matchup for him, even though he had pitched well in St. Louis on Aug. 7 for one of his 15 wins.

As it turned out, Zito had to escape a second-and-third, none-out jam in the second, and needed four spectacular defensive plays to keep his shutout intact. But he ended up allowing just six hits and one walk, retiring 11 in a row after giving up a leadoff double by Allen Craig in the fourth.

His catcher, Buster Posey, said it. The opposing manager, Mike Matheny, said it. Practically everyone said it. Zito was “pitching,” keeping the Cardinals off balance, exploiting their confusion for six strikeouts.

“He was raising eye level,” Matheny said. “He was in the top of the zone, just above, on the edges, just off. He was moving in and out, back and forth. He was taking speeds off his breaking ball and changeup. That’s what pitching is.”

Zito, the 2002 American League Cy Young Award winner, hadn’t won a postseason game since '06, and that was with his previous team, the Oakland Athletics.

When asked if it was the greatest start of his career, he said, “Yeah, all things considered. You know, there’s definitely some playoff memories there, but they were all in a different uniform. This was probably the biggest one for me.”

He signed his seven-year, $126 million contract — the largest ever given to a pitcher at that time — in December 2006. But after going 102-63 with a 3.55 ERA in Oakland, he’s 58-69 with a 4.47 ERA with San Francisco, pitching under relentless scrutiny.

“You can lose games when nobody’s paying attention,” Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti said. “You can kind of go home or whatever. But obviously, folks have been paying attention to him for quite some time.”

Zito still gives off a cool vibe — he strolled into his postgame news conference wearing a Fedora and carrying a backpack. But don’t be deceived by his appearance, or his slightly offbeat personality. Bochy said Zito is “some kind of tough.” Giants general manager Brian Sabean echoed that remark, calling Zito a “tough SOB.” And the players hold Zito in equally high regard.

Infielder Ryan Theriot joined the Giants just this season, and took pride in beating the other hitters to the park during spring training for early work. Zito, though, almost always arrived before him, and would be performing drills to improve his mechanics by the time Theriot began hitting.

“His work ethic is second to none,” Theriot said.

Reliever Javier Lopez noticed something else this season: Zito no longer was burdened by his contract, which runs through 2013. Others with the team noticed the difference, too: Finally, Zito was relaxing more.

“He came with the attitude that he wanted to enjoy his career, wanted to enjoy the game again,” Lopez said. “He made a concerted effort to have fun. And the team has fed off that. There is probably no starting pitcher we root for more in this clubhouse than Barry.”

“I’m known for my Arabian horse gallop, as (Brian) Wilson calls it. Just not that fast,” Zito said. “To bunt for a hit, you’ve got to be perfect, and fortunately it was there.”

Truth be told, he was darned near perfect all night, and the outcome could not have been more fitting. Zito worked years for this moment when others thought it would never come. Worked years to bring his career full circle, and produce his least-expected performance at the most opportune time.

Don’t call it magic. Call it a just reward.