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NLCS Game 5 Diary: The Return of the King

In Baseball on October 21, 2012 at 7:31 pm

Like modern-day Montagues and Capulets, Crim Del Harris writers Ian Brickey and Sam Sutton love their baseball teams and (for the next week or so) hate each other.

Pregame

St. Louis is joyful. The Cardinals are one win away from the team’s first pennant since 2011. The long-suffering franchise (hey, 11 months is a long time — just ask any college sophomore) is ready to break the Curse of Gerald Laird and raise another flag.

The Game

Well, that escalated quickly. San Francisco Giants starter Barry Zito pitched like it was 2002 (a little-known Prince B-side) and dominated the Cardinals lineup. Cardinals starter Lance Lynn pitched poorly and fielded worse. The Cardinals offense looked silly, and the Giants coasted to a victory in Game 5 of the NLCS.

Final Score: Giants 5, Cardinals 0—

SS: The most important number in any story about Barry Zito’s career is $126 million.

There isn’t a single article written about the man that doesn’t eventually mention the asinine contract the San Francisco Giants management offered him when he joined the club in 2007, following seven strong years across the Bay in Oakland. He had a Cy Young and a reputation for post-season toughness to his credit, as well as the sort of oddball personality people in San Francisco (supposedly) adore. That was enough for general manager Brian Sabean and then-president Peter Magowan.

Everyone knows how that has panned out. If you don’t, here is what $126 million has looked like for the San Francisco Giants. 

Zito knows he hasn’t lived up to his contract, the expectations or the hype. He also knows that he will never be the same pitcher he was in 2002, when he went 23-5 with a 2.75 ERA. He has been booed, ridiculed and vilified well past the point at which most players would have demanded (and received) a trade.

And while his reputation as an ace-material starter has deteriorated, those of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner have soared. But even though his name had become a punch line, he continued to work hard, say the right things and provide leadership to the club’s young stars. One telling anecdote: In 2010, he was left off the Giants’ playoff roster, but continued to throw bullpen sessions regularly to stay fresh — on the off-chance injuries or poor performance required him to take the mound.

This year, Tim Lincecum’s struggles have dominated the headlines, allowing Zito to transform into a reliably competent (though rarely brilliant) fifth starter in the rotation. Now that he is finally benefitting from run-support the Giants rarely provided in his early years with the team, Zito has thrown a 15-8 season with a 4.15 ERA, basically serving the same role Alex Smith has on the 49’ers. He almost never blows away the opposition, but he almost always puts the team in a position where it can win.

Friday night was an exception to all of the above. Zito didn’t just put the Giants in a position to win, he dominated. It was as if he’d Marty McFly’ed the 2002 version of himself into Busch Stadium, flummoxing playoff All-Stars like Carlos Beltran, David Freese and Matt Holliday; earning every penny of the $19 million the Giants will pay him this year.

Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti put it best, speaking to The San Francisco Chronicle following the game:

“You can lose games and if no one’s paying attention you can go home and feel OK,” he said. “But people have been paying attention to him for quite some time.

“He’s handled some pretty low stuff. And some high stuff. Always about the same. And he’s sharing this with a new wife, who’s from here in St. Louis. He should feel great tonight.”

For one night, Barry Zito can define his career by a different set of numbers: 7.2 innings pitched, 6 strikeouts, 6 hits, 1 walk, 0 ER. And most importantly: 1 win.

IB: First of all, kudos to the San Francisco Giants for playing like the team they should have played like in Games 1, 3 and 4. Angel Pagan flashed some defensive skills in center field, and Brandon Crawford hit a key two-run single in the top of the fourth inning. The Giants also benefited from a Keystone Cops-esque performance from the St. Louis Cardinals. Cardinals starter Lance Lynn did himself no favors in the game, killing a potential rally in the third inning by grounding into a double play, and giving up a big inning to San Francisco in the fourth. Oh, and Pete Kozma will ALWAYS be the draft bust that St. Louis picked over Rick Porcello.

But the biggest story of the night — and my biggest problem with it — was Barry Zito. Zito shut down the Cardinals for 7.2 innings. St. Louis hacked and flailed at Zito’s slo-mo hijinks — maybe they got lost in his eyes, or started thinking about Stetson ads

In all seriousness, Zito pitched a hell of a game. The pressure goes up exponentially during the playoffs. National television cameras zoom in on your face, millions of fans scrutinize your every move, and Joe Buck’s dead, lifeless eyes stare through your soul. Moreover, this was Zito’s first playoff start since 2006. After signing his $126,000,000 contract with San Francisco in 2007, Zito pitched terribly. He never exceeded 200 innings, had a total WAR of 3.8 (with a negative WAR in three seasons), and had an ERA+ over 100 only once. Zito was so bad that the Giants left him off their playoff roster for EVERY round of the 2010 postseason. Yeah, the one where they won the World Series.

The best explanation I can come up with for Zito’s disappointing 2007-2012 statistics is that it was some kind of elaborate performance art piece to expose the ridiculous nature of sports contracts (and with his past exploits, that could very well be true). So it was unexpected, to say the least, that Zito thoroughly dominated the Cardinals, who were one of the National League’s best offensive teams in 2012. But unexpected is as much credit as I will give ol’ Barry. As much as Jeff Passan and Tim McCarver want to claim that this was a career-defining performance or his BEST START EVAR, it’s simply not true. Zito has made nine postseason starts in his career. In 54.2 playoff innings, he has an ERA of 2.96. He’s given up 18 ER, 10 of which came in two starts. Zito has pitched into at least the sixth inning in six of his nine postseason starts, and he’s had a positive Win Probability added in six of those starts. The numbers don’t lie — for his career, Zito’s been pretty damned good in the postseason.

I won’t lie, I don’t have a problem with the Cardinals losing to Zito in the playoffs. Sure, they were at home, and yes, they were coming off offensive explosions in the previous two games, but Zito is one of the better pitchers in baseball. My problem comes from people trying to cast Zito as this scrub pitcher who came out of nowhere to dominate a superior team. Zito has done himself no favors since 2007, but he’s not Dontrelle Willis, and the Cardinals are no 1927 New York Yankees. Zito was on his game last night, plain and simple. And, to be honest, Giants fans should expect no less.

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