SAN FRANCISCO — From postseason bystander to starting the World Series opener. That’s how far Barry Zito has come in two years to resurrect his career.
The resurgent left-hander will pitch Game 1 for the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday night against Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers.
Manager Bruce Bochy said Tuesday he will go with Zito, who has turned around his career this year — and Bochy was eager and proud to give the pitcher the news, once they finally connected that is.
“I tried to call him all day. He left his phone at the ballpark, so I couldn’t get ahold of him,” Bochy said. “But he was ecstatic. He was proud, honored that we have the trust in him to start Game 1.”
Zito’s stellar outing in a 5-0 victory on Friday night in Game 5 of the N.L. championship series at Busch Stadium helped San Francisco rally from a 3-1 series deficit against the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals to return to the World Series for the second time in three years.
Left off the postseason roster for all three rounds when the Giants won it all in 2010, Zito made a conscious decision to find his way by just plain having fun again — forgetting one bad start and moving on to the next. Whatever he has done to change his mental approach, it has certainly paid off on the mound.
“It’s not important to reflect right now. There’s work to do,” Zito said. “I’m going to be on the mound here in the next 24 hours, so that’s where my focus is at.”
For Bochy, leaving Zito off the roster was among the toughest calls he has made as a manager. That made delivering the good news Tuesday so much sweeter.
“I couldn’t be happier for him. It says a lot about his mental toughness, his makeup,” Bochy said. “I mentioned this in 2010, it wasn’t easy not to put him on the postseason roster. He was struggling in September. But the way he handled it was so impressive. He went out, I think he threw a bullpen that day, and throughout the postseason he kept himself ready in case something happened. He didn’t hang his head and he even threw to hitters.”
It doesn’t hurt that Zito now has four pitches to baffle batters aside from just that nasty curveball that has defined his career since back in the early days of the Big Three — with Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder — across the bay with the Oakland Athletics.
“He’s been through a lot, obviously. He took the beatings,” Giants general manager Brian Sabean said of Zito. “He’s always been a stand-up guy, he’s never stopped working. In his own way he’s never stopped believing and he’s made changes. He’s made changes when he had to. I actually don’t think other than when he first came here that he was supposed to be the lead dog in the staff as it turned out the young guys were so good so fast. You look back in Oakland he was just one of the group. I don’t think the money ever bothered him.”
Bochy credits the work Zito did with pitching coach Dave Righetti to constantly make adjustments and find what would work.
“It’s hard to sum it up in one answer,” Zito said after beating the Cardinals. “It’s just a plethora of things that I’ve done and gone through here with the Giants. But the most important thing was to come out and give everything I’ve got.”
The Giants have won Zito’s last 13 starts, dating to Aug. 7. The 2002 A.L. Cy Young Award winner with Oakland went 15-8 for his most wins since joining the Giants on a $126 million, seven-year contract before the 2007 season.
And what ideal timing for Zito to shine in a season that two-time N.L. Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum faltered. Lincecum will remain in the bullpen for now, giving Bochy ample options how to use him.
As Lincecum endured his own struggles this season, he learned from how Zito handled himself and couldn’t be happier for his teammate.
“I’ve been really close with him, and he’s been here since I’ve been here,” Lincecum said. “It’s been great to watch him grow, on and off the field. Obviously, he hasn’t seen things go the way he wanted them to the last few years but this year has been a big year for him. What more can you say about a guy who has gone about the way he has professionally and still find a way to be positive about it?”
When Zito won Game 5 last week, he said how special it was to deliver in the most important start yet of his 13-year big league career.
Zito has been so good he’s trending on Twitter with his own hashtag — and, now, (hashtag)RallyZito rolls on to the World Series. Not that he’s paying a lot of attention.
“I tried Twitter a couple of years ago and it was a pretty devastating experience for me,” Zito said the other day with a laugh. “I learned to not check the inbox. So I got off Twitter. I’m excited that the fans are fired up.”
That support sure has meant a lot to Zito, who has always said the right thing even through the down times. Bochy praised his class in handling the 2010 situation. All those boos that came from every which way for so long have turned to cheers and thunderous standing ovations.
“For me personally, to look at the whole story and everything else doesn’t really help me because I have a routine I have to stick to,” Zito said. “I’m excited to pitch every time I get on the mound. This is a more exciting opportunity than most.”
Bochy will go with back-to-back lefties as Madison Bumgarner is set to start Game 2 on Thursday, followed by right-handers Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain. That puts Vogelsong in line to pitch a possible Game 7.
Zito won his last five regular-season starts and seven decisions of the regular season since a loss Aug. 2 to the Mets.
He has tweaked his delivery, added a cut fastball and learned to make adjustments right away when things go wrong. Working tirelessly with Righetti has helped, too.
Detroit’s Delmon Young knows just how much this means to Zito. They worked out together in the offseason following San Francisco’s 2010 title run.
“He was still happy to be a Giant,” Young said. “He was happy that he won a World Series and everything but he wanted to make sure that he was going to actually contribute. He worked his butt off. Now he’s earned what he wanted.”