The year was 2012. The Giants had just one lousy championship, and we weren’t even that spoiled yet. The mood was grim. The Cardinals, the stupid Cardinals, who had broken Marco Scutaro and our hearts, were up 3-1 in the NLCS. The Giants had already won three elimination games in a row. That’s a better postseason run than most franchises will have in a decade, and they wanted you to believe it could be done again in the very next series?
Think also about the mood after the Game 4 loss. Tim Lincecum started, and he was awful, as expected. The first three batters of the game: single, walk, single. The first out he recorded was on a screaming line drive that scored a run. It wasn’t just the kind of doom that made you think the series was over. It was the kind of doom that made you wonder if Lincecum was done as an effective starter.
RON HOWARD: He was.
And without Lincecum, the Giants were doomed. The whole organization was built around superlative starting pitching. There was no way to adjust the blueprint on the fly. Lincecum started, and the Giants lost. It was an omen for the future. Lincecum would continue making poor starts in the future, and the Giants would lose more. It was a simple correlation to draw. It was over. Hug your homemade Cody Ross doll, because it was over.
The Giants needed to win Game 5. Madison Bumgarner, who had started Game 1, was on normal rest. His previous nine starts:
6⅓ IP, 4 R
4 IP, 5 R
6⅓ IP, 4 R
4⅓ IP, 5 R (11 H!)
6 IP, 1 R (5 BB!)
5⅔ IP, 3 R
4 IP, 5 R
4⅓ IP, 4 R (NLDS)
3⅔ IP, 6 R (NLCS)
That’s a cool 7.46 ERA over nine starts, with exactly one quality start. And that one quality start was a griiiiiiind. Bumgarner was 22 and tired. Just wiped out. He was so obviously tired, the Giants decided to start Barry Zito on purpose, and everyone was okay with that.
That might have been the only week of Madison Bumgarner’s major league career in which the Giants would have made the decision to start Zito over him in that situation, and that’s not hyperbole. It was the perfect mix of tired and desperate.
Zito didn’t have a bad year. He was 15-8 with a 4.15 ERA, which would have been great to a time traveler from 2000 who didn’t know how AT&T Park played. He started the year with a shutout in Coors Field, and he finished the season at semi-full speed, with 29 strikeouts in 35 innings and a 3.03 ERA in September. He was grinding out quality starts.
The Giants were 21-11 in Zito’s starts that year. Max Scherzer is probably going to win the Cy Young this year, and the Nationals were 24-10 in his starts. Those stats don’t exactly mean anything, but they’re fun. And it adds flavor to Barry Zito Day.
Anyway, you all know how it ended.
Last year I did a breakdown of the actual game, but omitted a lot of the context up there. Which is backwards, I suppose. Think of this as a prequel! The game also included the first moment when I realized, my word, they might actually win this series:
That’s Barry Zito noticing that David Freese is playing back, then convincing himself to bunt for a hit. It’s legitimately one of my favorite baseball moments, but only because it worked.
It scored the fourth run. It knocked Lance Lynn out of the game. It was, in the words of Mike Krukow, "A PEARL." And that was the moment President Obama referenced in his next State of the Union address as "the moment when America truly understood what it meant to persevere, to come together, to be a part of a winning team."
Well, he should have.
You can watch the whole game here, and I recommend it. If we’re being honest with each other, I wasn’t so sure if the Barry Zito contract was really a good idea. On the fence for those first six erratic, frustrating seasons. But that was his finest hour, and it justified everything.
There’s a Barry Zito Day now. That day is today.
Happy Barry Zito Day.