Walcoff: Four-step program could help change Zito’s ways while in ’pen

It’s a big-league crossroad, not a dead end for Barry Zito. After a majors-leading 247 consecutive starts without missing a turn, the soon-to-be 30-year-old is now baseball’s highest-paid setup man.

With an 0-6 record and an earned run average topping the magnitude of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the Giants had little choice but to pull their $126 million left-hander from the rotation. But that doesn’t necessarily make Zito S.F.’s biggest bust since Carol Doda.

Pitching coach Dave Righetti told me during spring training that Zito was finally relaxed after struggling to live up to his contract and adjust to a new league in ’07. While Zito still looks like he’s pressing and stressing, it was refreshing to hear him say all the right things about the demotion, including a confession that if he was a fan, he’d boo himself, too.

So how do the Giants get Zito to pay dividends on his $500,000-a-start salary, which now comes out to about $10,000 a pitch as a reliever?

First and foremost, stop grooving weak, belt-high fastballs. Righetti isn’t concerned that Barry’s diminished heater barely hits 85 mph, saying Kirk Rueter never threw any harder but by keeping the ball down and hitting the corners won almost 60 percent of his games in 13 big-league seasons.

No. 2, break out the video and look at game film from 2002, when Zito went 23-5 and won the AL Cy Young.

Third, consider bringing back the slider. Barry dabbled with it a few years ago, but for some reason doesn’t throw it anymore. Hitters are sitting on his pitches because there’s little doubt what’s coming; when he’s ahead 0-2, look for the curveball. When he’s behind 2-0 in the count, hello, fastball, or the occasional changeup that all too often doesn’t find the strike zone.

No. 4, ditch the mellow mind-set and brush back a few hitters — it will make his curve more effective and restore some of the mound nastiness every pitcher needs to win. And finally, ask Peter Magowan to drop the no-surfing clause in his contract. The sharks swimming in Zito’s head are a lot more dangerous to his career.

» Back in February, the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks were buzzing with optimism about their blockbuster trades for two of the NBA’s all-time greats. But Shaquille O’Neal’s move to Phoenix and Jason Kidd’s return to Dallas both did more harm than good.

At 36, Shaq couldn’t keep up with his high-flying teammates. He also missed 32 free-throw attempts in the five games against the San Antonio Spurs, including 11 in the series finale Tuesday.

So much for his, “I make ’em when I need to” boasts.

Meanwhile, Kidd, with a lot of miles on those 35-year-old knees, averaged only 8.6 points and 6.8 assists a game against New Orleans while the Hornets’ Chris Paul ran him ragged, averaging 24.6 points and 12 assists in the series.

» Look for the Spurs to cool off the Hornets and the Utah Jazz to meet and beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the other Western Conference semifinal.

Are they still playing basketball in the Eastern Conference? Wake me when the Boston Celtics get to the NBA Finals.

Rich Walcoff is the sports director at KGO Radio (810 AM) and can be heard weekdays between 5-9 a.m. on the “KGO Morning News.” He can also be reached at richwalcoff@abc-sf.com.

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