Five years ago today, Barry Zito pitched against a St. Louis Cardinals team that was built to demolish pitchers like Barry Zito. Their slugging percentage jumped 50 points against left-handed pitchers. It jumped 70 points when they didn’t have to face power pitchers. They were second in the league in runs scored, and they were playing at home. Every scrap of evidence suggested they would clobber Zito and win the series, 4-1.
They didn’t. It’s the fifth birthday of the Barry Zito game, and I baked a cake in the shape of ha-ha-what-in-the-absolute-hell. I hope you enjoy it.
I’ve written about it in each of the two previous years, mostly because there wasn’t a whole lot to do by October 19th. This one walked you through the game, albeit with videos that MLB.com doesn’t support anymore, for whatever reason. This one was mostly an excuse to use that GIF of Zito bunting again. And if you wanted to read a pitch-by-pitch breakdown of Zito against Daniel Descalso, which was the at-bat of the game, you can find that here.
In this installment, I would like to marvel at the idea that it was Barry Zito pitching instead of Madison Bumgarner on regular rest, and everyone was fine with that.
Bumgarner was 22 years old in 2012, but he’d been a regular in the rotation for three years. On August 20, he threw eight shutout innings against the Dodgers, striking out 10 batters without allowing a walk. His ERA was 2.83. His record was 14-7. He was on his way to picking up some down-ballot Cy Young votes, and with the struggles of Tim Lincecum, he was probably going to start Game 1 or 2 of every postseason series possible.
And then he was horrible. After being a workhorse who pitched into the seventh inning 18 different times that year, he did it just twice more for the rest of the season, losing both games. He was knocked out before completing five innings in three starts after having just one start like that in the previous five months. He allowed 10 runs in his first two starts of the postseason, each time putting the Giants in a hole for the series.
Barry Zito during this time? Extremely Barry Zito. He would pitch five or six innings, and he would keep the game close. His 3.33 ERA over his final eight starts might have been a little deceptive, but not by much. His control was fine during that stretch, and the Giants had won his final 11 starts.
The Giants were 21-11 in Zito’s starts that year. For comparison, the Nationals were 21-10 in Max Scherzer’s starts this year.
Still, when it came to an elimination game in the postseason, there was no way the Giants were going to pay attention to that when the other option was to start a pitcher who finished the year with a 3.37 ERA, finished 11th in the Cy Young voting the year before, and was a crucial rotation cog in the 2010 championship. There was an easy path to avoid starting Zito on the road against a Cardinals team that clobbered lefties: Bumgarner in Game 5, Ryan Vogelsong in Game 6, and Matt Cain in Game 7.
Except that’s how horrible Bumgarner was at the end. That’s how tired. When I wrote this headline ...
Zito is actually starting, folks
... there were exactly zero mentions of Bumgarner. There was no controversy. If anything, the controversy came before Game 2 of the World Series, when he was the only option to start, and everyone was terrified of that prospect.
If Bumgarner pitches that Game 5, maybe he does okay. Maybe he allows just three or four runs in six innings, and maybe he keeps the Giants in the game.
Or maybe he gets blown up again, and the Giants lose. There is no magical comeback. And in the following seasons, the rosters are just different enough — no extra World Series money to spend, after all — to prevent the Giants from building the exact same team that stunned the world in 2014. There’s no mythos swirling around Bumgarner and his World Series exploits. There’s no Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award, no Game 7 legends.
And it all happened because he sucked for a month-and-a-half at exactly the right time. Then he was fixed for Game 2 of the World Series. Gosh, what a silly sport.
But back to Zito. He was pitching because the Giants didn’t have a better choice, which seemed sad at the time. But he won. He kept the season alive. It was kind of a miracle that wasn’t going to happen again — it’s not like he was going to match up with the best pitcher in baseball in the World Series and win there, too — but it was a miracle we could all appreciate.
Five years ago, Barry Zito earned $252 million, and the Giants got lucky that he gave them a 50-percent discount. There was no reason to expect the Giants to win. They did. And it’s still one of the greatest games we’ll ever see. Watch that sucker here, when you find the time.