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Zito Razzle-Dazzles

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It’s a proud day in San Francisco. After three seasons of rock-bottom performance, Barry Zito made his season debut Tuesday, pitching like the ace he was when he played for Oakland. (See my musical lament, The Ballad of Barry Zito.) He threw six scoreless innings and won a season debut for the first time since 2003.

What makes this a bigger deal than most good pitching openers is, of course, Zito’s dismal performance since joining the Giants for an astronomical salary that, IMO, got in his way psychologically. In 2008 Manager Bruce Bochy demoted Zito to the bullpen after his worst performance of the season, a three-inning, eight-run outing in a 10-1 loss to Cincinnati. That dropped Zito’s record to a Major League-worst of 0-6. His ERA was 7.53.

During the same season Zito did pitch one great game, but as I said at the time, “one win does not a comeback guarantee, and there’s no way to know if this is the beginning of Zito’s recovery or just a fluke.” I’m afraid to admit it, but the same could be said for what happened Tuesday; I’m keeping my fingers crossed this is a new–or rather recovered–Zito we’re seeing, who will continue to knock ’em dead throughout 2010. One point in his favor is that, according to Giants closer and Zito’s good friend Brian Wilson (not to be confused with the Beach Boy), Zito has increased his capabilities with a slider, which helped him pull off a 2.83 ERA in last season’s second half. “He’d been working on that last year, but today it was on cue,” said Wilson, who himself pitched a perfect ninth for his second save in two nights.

The Giants not only won Tuesday’s game, they swept the Astros. We just might be in for an exciting San Francsico season, for the first time since they made the World Series back in 2002 (even though they lost.)

Barry Zito UpdateMay 8th:

Five weeks into the season it’s apparent that Barry Zito’s comeback is real. This is no fluke, no one- or even six-time lucky streak. On Wednesday the SF Chronicle‘s Sportssection carried Zito on the front page under the headline: “Back in business,” and a sub-head saying “Zito looks like the ace Giants signed in 2006.”

Hell, he looks even better! After pitching 42.1 innings, Zito’s ERA is 1.49, better even than the Giants’ darling Tim Lincecum (1.70). He’s won five games and lost none.

You can see the change in his persona: on the mound he’s looking ferocious, zeroing in like a laser beam, focus and fury behind every pitch. He talks to himself, muttering in between pitches, not caring who might notice. That’s an indication that Zito’s in his own private pitching zone, instead of fretting over what people are saying and thinking about him.

While he says he can’t explain the steps to his comeback, he knows the reason for his three-year dive. “It was about money,” he told the Chronicle. It was about the microscope being on me more than ever before in my life.”

I just love saying  “I told you so.” For three seasons I told anyone who’d listen that Zito’s problems came from making so much money and being watched so intensely. At the time, nobody else pinpointed this as the root of the issue. Zito now says he was caught up in frantic people-pleasing pressure.  Most of us can probably relate to that; too bad Zito can’t bottle his recovery process — he’d make a fortune.

Knowing Barry Zito, if he could bottle it, he’d give it away free. The reason I like him so much, besides his adorable face and pitching delivery and skill, is that he’s a real mensch. Even more impressive, Zito practices yoga and meditation, and seems to be familiar with the dark side of his psyche.

I like that. It shows courage. It shows depth. It shows there’s more to his pretty-boy looks than meets the eye. I can picture Zito as a distinguished gentleman of  80, his handsome face deeply lined, his eyes unfathomable pools of wisdom.

Not too soon, though — Barry Zito has a lot more innings to pitch before then!

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