The Z Man. That’s the label. At least the most positive one. Barry Zito has been called a lot of things the last three years, many of them unpleasant, which is the nature of failed expectations.
But in this, his fourth season with the Giants, who knows what to expect from Zito?
The other day, he was sitting by himself at the end of the dugout after the workout had finished, a man left to his thoughts and hopes. A man perhaps freed from some of his burdens.
A lifetime lasts only minutes in sport. One day, you’re the man, the subject, the person in the headlines, for better or worse.
Then you’re almost an afterthought. Then you’re someone down in the rotation, behind that kid Tim Lincecum.
The exhibition season begins today for the Giants, for the Cactus League.
“You come here and after a few days you can’t wait for the games to start,” said Bruce Bochy, the San Francisco manager, “So let’s crank it up.”
Let’s find out what Barry Zito can do. Let’s learn if the second half of 2009, when he went 5-4 and had a 2.83 earned run average, was the return of the Zito we once knew.
Let’s learn if he’s once again ready to step into the spotlight which focused on him for so long.
Three years ago, he came from the A’s for that big salary, $126 million as we are so often reminded. He was supposed to be not only the new face of the Giants, a sharper image in place of the departing and denigrated Barry Bonds, but the anchor of the staff.
Zito, however, kept losing the strike zone and losing games. He was forcing the issue, attempting to make every pitch a strike, and as so often the case when an individual seeks perfection, was agonizingly imperfect.
Now, Lincecum has climbed to the top, winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards, winning a new $23 million, two-year contract. Matt Cain is the No. 2 starter, with Zito No. 3 and no-hit Jonathan Sanchez No. 4.
“I wouldn’t say I’m fine with it,” Zito told Barry Bloom of MLB.com. “I’m not. I’m competitive by nature. I want to be the guy. It’s important. But the way I pitched in 2008 [10-17, 5.15 earned run average], didn’t deem me worthy of being the No. 1 starter going into last season. But no, I’m not happy with being a No. 3 starter.”
He can do something about it. He can pitch at least somewhat the way he pitched for Oakland in 2002, when he was 23-5, had a 2.75 ERA and was the Cy Young Award winner in the American League.
“I want to earn my stature back,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to give it to me.”
What Giants fans were giving him most of the last three seasons was derision. Nobody on the home nine was booed at AT&T Park like Barry was. Even when he shouldn’t have been booed.
“His numbers weren’t indicative of how well he threw,” said Bochy, defending Zito. “He just needs to be consistent from the first game on.”
He just needs to earn his stature back.