In April, after Barry Zito shut the Rockies out in Coors Field, this was the headline of a prescient Gwen Knapp piece in the Chronicle:
Barry Zito can write sequel to Alex Smith's story
We didn't know quite how terrible the Rockies were going to be*, and Zito-based optimism was abound. Maybe this was the year he broke out and closed our yap holes. It was something to root for at least.
He didn't exactly have a vintage Zito season, but he still ended up a feted postseason hero in Giants lore. Which is still a weird clause to type.
There would be no redemption story if it weren't for the NLCS, though. Zito was bad/wild/squeezed against the Reds. And in the second inning of Game 5 of the NLCS, with the season on the line, it looked like the narrative was going to be "Dammit, Zito." There was an outside chance of "Aw, come on, dammit, Zito." We had seen it all before.
Yadier Molina ripped a low fastball into center for a single on the first pitch of the inning. It might have been a strike, but it would have been a pitcher's strike. It was a pretty good pitch against an aggressive hitter, but Molina beat it. That brought up David Freese, who blooped the second pitch of the inning into right field. Hunter Pence was close to catching it. How close?
That close. Pence was a chaeta away from catching it, but it didn't matter. Two pitches into the inning, Zito had two runners in scoring position with no one out. The meltdown was starting, through no real fault of Zito's own.
You probably said a few naughty words. You don't have to take them back; they were completely valid.
That brought up Daniel Descalso. In a small sample over his career, he has reverse platoon splits, but that shouldn't matter. If you start Daniel Descalso against a left-handed pitcher, you probably deserve whatever happens. Except these were the Cardinals, so he was obviously going to rip a double down the line.
Instead, Zito pitched masterfully. It's hard to say with any certainty that this was the most important at-bat of the playoffs for the Giants -- it was just the second inning, and they won the game by five, after all -- but it probably was. A single would have put the Cardinals up two at home in an elimination game. Things could have quickly spiraled in the other direction.
The first pitch was a slider that floated outside. After two pitches, Zito had a pair of runners in scoring position. After three pitches, he was behind in the count with a pair of runners in scoring position.
The second pitch:
I really don't know if Zito's improved curveball led to his September/October improvement, or if a mechanical tweak led to a better everything. It's a chicken/egg question. All I know is that he stopped walking as many people as soon as his curveball had more vertical break and less horizontal break. The 1-0 curveball he threw to Descalso couldn't have been better.
Zito's curveball is what got him paid in the first place. It's like that quote about his curve from the Moneyball movie:
Well, there should have been a quote about it. Without taking the 7,049 hours it would take to check, I'm pretty sure that was the best curve Zito has thrown as a Giant, in both form and function.
The third pitch:
Slutter on the outside, perfectly placed, with good movement. Unless Descalso was thinking leftfieldleftfieldleftfield, his only option was to not swing. Instead, he realized too late that it was moving outside and fouled it away. That put Zito ahead in a two-strike situation, which was obviously a big deal. Now Descalso had to worry about the curve.
Zito shook off Posey twice to get this pitch, a curve in the dirt. It was a good two-strike pitch, but Descalso was probably ready to throw an emergency swing on a curveball, just in case. He probably could have done this all night until Zito hung one, and that led to the fifth pitch:
If I'm Descalso, I'm pretty sure I know what's coming next. That ball didn't get away from Zito. Descalso knew that Zito wasn't trying to get him out with a fastball on the hands that got away.
That was a setup pitch. Maybe the wiring in my brain is different after two decades of Mike Krukow, but that sure seemed like an attempt to change the sight-lines, something to make Descalso aware of a pitch up and in before coming back at him with a curveball. He could look curve again. Because that was such an obvious setup pitch, maybe he could cheat a bit and sit on a curve.
Well, dang. I would have been wrong. More importantly, Descalso was wrong. It was a big game of rock/paper/scissors, and Buster Posey beat us all. The setup pitch was backed up with a high fastball, but one that looked too good to take. It was a great pitch.
The whole at-bat was set up by Zito's ability to show a huge breaking ball. The curve was a guy walking into his high-school reunion carrying a monitor lizard under each arm. "I should probably keep an eye out for that guy," you'd think. And you'd be right to do so. You'd probably spend all night wondering why the dude has two lizards at a reunion. But while Descalso was worrying about the curve, Zito beat him with a 83-m.p.h. fastball at the letters. After an intentional walk, Lance Lynn grounded into a double play, and the shutout was intact.
Then the Giants won the World Series.
After six seasons, I'm not sure there was a defining Barry Zito moment with the Giants. If they didn't make the playoffs in 2010, it would have been his September start against the Padres. But they did make the playoffs in 2010, and I guess his signature moment was Zito on the bench, being a good teammate, joking with Lincecum during Nelson Cruz's last at-bat against Brian Wilson.
This will do as a $126 million signature moment that was worth the money. This will do nicely. If Zito melted down in the second inning, it would have been a good season. Good show, chaps. Instead, with Zito pitching as well as he ever had with the Giants, he helped the team win a championship. It was unlikely as a major-league hitter waving through an 83-m.p.h. fastball, which, under the circumstances, doesn't seem that odd in retrospect. It seems perfectly natural.