In September 2010 the San Francisco Giants were in a heart-stopping race to try and catch the San Diego Padres and somehow wrestle away a first place finish in the National League West. The pitching-rich Padres spent 128 of the first 145 games of that year firmly in 1st place and it looked like the Giants were running uphill.
But in the final 17 games of the season San Diego would be in 1st place for for only 3 days, and on the final day of the season the Pads would lose the NL West title to the surging Giants.
Giants' starter Barry Zito was 9-14 in 2010 with a 4.15 ERA and 150 SO in 199.1 innings pitched. Probably not what either the baseball establishment or the sabermetric community would call a standout year. Except this: without Zito's 9 wins Giant players, coaches, and owners would have watched the 2010 post season on their 60 inch HDTVs in their media rooms instead of winning the World Series against the Texas Rangers.
This season Zito has once again been an invaluable component of a winning team, and once again it will be his pitching that makes the difference if the Giants are able to hold on and take the NL West title.
Universally thought of as the permanent #5 starter on this Giants starting staff, Barry Zito has actually been in the #4 slot most of this season right behind Matt Cain in the rotation. His 11-8 record, 4.33 ERA and 95 strike-outs only begin to suggest his contributions in what has been the most difficult and upside down regular season for the San Francisco franchise in over a decade.
Giants' ace Tim Lincecum has gone through a storm of uncertainly and failure in 2012, occasionally punctuated with a promising outing that he invariably cannot sustain. To have your top starter, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, have an 8-14 record with a 5.11 ERA and a 1.473 WHIP in mid-September during a race for the playoffs would spell disaster for almost any other team. But not the Giants.
And here is where Zito has made two major contributions to San Francisco's 2012 season: first, he's pitching better than he has since his final year with the Oakland A's in 2006 (16-10, 1.403 WHIP); second, Zito has effectively offset Lincecum's difficult year. Which allows Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Ryan Vogelsong to take the lead in creating wins and driving this team forward.
The impact on the team's resurgence after the Melky Cabrera meltdown has been significant: the Giants have won all seven of Zito's last seven starts, and nine of his last twelve starts.
The best example of this, and perhaps Barry Zito's greatest game as a San Francisco Giant was the rubber game of a three game set with the Los Angeles Dodgers at AT&T Park this past weekend. In first place and up 4.5 games on second place LA, the Giants were in a position to put the Dodgers into a mathematically slippery rat-hole if they could take at least two of three games.
Game one was another Tim Lincecum revival meeting-- 6.1 innings pitched, 4 hits, 0 runs, 7 strikeouts (and 7 walks). The Giants bullpen did their thing and threw 2.2 innings of 2-hit no-run baseball to seal a 5-2 victory. Game two was a tight battle with Matt Cain giving up 2 runs in 7.1 IP-- but the Giants lost 3-2.
Barry Zito's assignment was to win game 3 and put the Dodgers down in the middle of a raging September battle to make the playoffs. He responded with 6.1 innings pitched, 4 hits, 0 runs, 4 SO and 3 BB. Zito got the win and the Giants took a 5.5 game lead in the NL West race with 22 games to go.
It was a masterful effort from a pitcher who has to actually pitch with every throw-- he lives on the edge of different speeds at different heights; he needs to get the ball inside and he needs to get the ball low; and Zito has an arching curve ball that floats in and breaks at the same time. That curveball could make Ted Williams or Shoeless Joe Jackson turn pirouettes in the batter's box.
The next two and a half weeks of Major League Baseball should be amazing. The two wild cards in each League, the intense battle in the American League East, the astounding Oakland A's, the White Sox and the Tigers tearing it up in the AL Central, and Atlanta and St. Louis clawing for spot in the NL post season. Fierce competition and extraordinary personal performances will likely abound.
In the middle of it all, a lefty starter for the San Francisco Giants will work in the shadows of his fellow starters and his own former greatness. But the man can still get it done whether anyone is watching or not.