Adulation arrives, but Zito focused on start
Giants left-hander won over fans with clutch performances in postseason
SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants will celebrate their success this weekend. Though every player will share this experience, Barry Zito will stand front and center.
The Giants will allow themselves to bask publicly in their 2012 World Series triumph one final time during their three-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals, at least during pregame ceremonies. The championship banner will be raised before Friday's home opener. Saturday, catcher Buster Posey will be recognized for winning the National League's Most Valuable Player Award. The hour that each player and many club employees have awaited for months will strike Sunday, when the rings commemorating the title will be distributed.
Everybody can appreciate a success story. Even more irresistible is the story of someone who thrives after enduring adversity. So expect the AT&T Park crowd to shower Zito with perhaps the loudest and longest cheering he ever has received when he starts Friday's game.
Unless that ovation occurs when Zito's leaving the game, the left-hander is likely to remain so deep in concentration that he might not acknowledge it.
"I would like to stay focused on what I have to do and my process and not get caught up too much in the festivities," Zito said. "It's going to be great for the fans, obviously. That's for them to enjoy. But for us, we have to focus on our tasks."
Besides, Zito knows he'll continue to face some degree of skepticism.
"I don't think I'm ever past that," he said. "As a professional athlete, as somebody who's been in the game a long time, there's always going to be expectations, there's always going to be naysayers, all that stuff. The factor for me is how much credence I give it and how much I let it affect me."
Still, for Zito, the honor of starting this particular home opener comes with more than the usual symbolism and significance. He'll face the same Cardinals team that he blanked for 7 2/3 innings in the Giants' 5-0 victory in Game 5 of the NLCS, widely considered to be the most crucial of San Francisco's six consecutive elimination-game wins in the postseason. He'll perform in front of many of the same fans who believed during the preceding five years that banishment to Triple-A Fresno would have been too good for him. Zito incurred their wrath by enduring losing seasons perennially since he came to San Francisco with a seven-year, $126 million contract, then the highest ever given to a Giant.
And he'll begin a new season hoping that it's much like the previous one -- finally. Not only did Zito finish 15-8 in 2012, but the Giants also won the final 14 games he pitched, including the postseason. Zito went 9-0 in that span. His last outing of the year was Game 1 of the World Series against the Detroit Tigers, who he limited to one run over 5 2/3 innings in an 8-3 victory.
"Barry has worked hard to get back to what he wants to be and where he wants to be," right-hander Tim Lincecum said. "You really have to hand it to the guy, especially with what he's been through and come back from. He's earned a lot of respect from fans and players alike."
Zito's confidence appears higher than it ever has been as a Giant.
"It could be a bad thing to take a false sense of security into the season based on what we've done in the past," Zito said. "But the postseason showed me that if I just make my pitches, that I'll have the tendency to miss barrels [of bats]."
Zito emphasized that he does not take such effectiveness for granted. Though Zito's record includes a stunning 23-5 effort with Oakland in 2002 that earned him the American League Cy Young Award, at age 34 he seems to have grasped precisely how difficult it is to be a consistently productive pitcher. He makes remarks such as, "Every day's a grind. I need to prove myself every pitch." And "It's a job every day to be good."
Thus, Zito won't dwell on the symmetry of facing the Cardinals or the public's adulation. He has a game to pitch.
"Getting into storylines -- I don't think that really helps me personally," he said. "It's just more about competing."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.