Saturday, October 2, 2010

Zito blows big chance for redemption

The catchy advertising slogan for the San Francisco Giants this season is “There’s Magic Inside.”

Who knew they would save their greatest disappearing act for last? A chance for Barry Zito to change from goat to hero.

A year ago, Zito was the lightning rod for all frustrations about being a Giants fan. He was the bad four-lettered word. He was being roundly and regularly criticized for never living up to the seven-year, $126 million contract he signed before the 2007 season – at the time the richest contract ever given to a pitcher in the history of baseball or George Steinbrenner.

With that albatross around his neck, Zito finally managed to pitch with some reasonable success as he quietly slid behind the spotlight focused on Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. Zito found his grove and his comfort zone.

Still, Zito was only bad outing, one bad inning, from being seeing pitch forks and torches marching back in his direction. The contract – the money he earned that never met the expectations that came with it – was something he will never be able to escape.

Well, on Saturday in front of a sellout crowd at AT&T Park pitching in a nationally-televised game that separated the Giants from a NL West division championship, the team’s first playoff spot in seven years and a shower of champagne, Zito had at long last the opportunity to shed the chains of bitter disappointment and emerge from the depths of despair to emerge as the big-game pitcher the Giants paid for.

So much for abracadabra.

Zito, who was bouncing pitches up to the plate in the bullpen warming up before the game, surrendered singles to the first two San Diego Padres batters in the game and both of them ended up scoring on back-to-back bases-loaded walks by Zito. Before the inning was over, Giants manager Bruce Bochy had relief pitcher Chris (Don’t Call Me) Ray warming up in the bullpen, pitching coach Dave Righetti had made a trip to the mound and all the excitement and anticipation of a Giants’ day of clinching had been sucked out of the ballpark.

Ray made one more trip to the bullpen and Righetti visited the mound one more time and Zito gave up one more run but the damage was done. Zito was almost removed for a pinch-hitter in the third inning, trailing 3-0 in a game that felt like 13-0. With two outs and nobody on, Bochy let Zito hit and be subject to boos. He swung and hit the ball – about 25 feet in front of the plate.

Zito stayed in the game … until he walked the first batter of the fourth inning -- opposing starting pitcher Tim Stauffer. By that time, Giants fans were ready to see Zito disappear at AT&T Park next to another unpopular figure from the past – Rusty the Mechanical Man.

Thus, Zito, if a moment of need, passed the job of clinching the NL West onto Jonathan Sanchez, another enigmatic lefthander who makes about an eighth of what Zito makes in a year to pitch once every five days.

All will be forgiven if the Giants clinch the NL West on Sunday, but Zito’s performance can’t be dismissed. If you’re a Giants’ fan, do you really want Zito in your playoff rotation? He has been credited with just one win in his last 14 starts. Is that the pitcher you want to pitch in a must-win playoff situation?

It seems Zito may have indeed performed a magic trick on Saturday after all. He may well have disappeared from the starting rotation to the playoff bullpen.


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