Saturday's starters have much to prove

SAN FRANCISCO -- We won't call it The Battle of the Busts, because that would be disrespectful.

Let's just say that if Barry Zito or Tim Stauffer wins Saturday afternoon, in the biggest game of the year (so far) for both teams, it should feel particular sweet. To them, to the men who signed them, and to the men who have been signing their checks.

ZitoZitoStaufferStaufferSeven years ago, the Padres had the fourth pick in the draft and used it to select Stauffer, who had just turned 21 while starring for the University of Richmond.

Now, pitchers are unpredicable and There is No Such Thing as a Pitching Prospectâ„¢ and all that, but Tim Stauffer has been particularly unpredictable and went from prospect to suspect with great skill.

Stauffer reached Triple-A in his first professional season, and pitched well. But in between occasionial trips to the majors -- as much for the morale of the front office as anything, I suspect -- Stauffer stalled out in Triple-A. He spent most of four seasons in Portland, which is at least three seasons too many for a No. 4 draft pick.

In 2008, the good news was that Stauffer didn't pitch in Triple-A. The bad news was that he didn't pitch at all, because he was sidelined all season with a shoulder injury.

And them, somehow, he came back in 2009 and was the pitcher the Padres had drafted six years earlier. He pitched better than he'd ever pitched for Portland, and then he pitched better than he'd ever pitched for San Diego.

Still, the Padres didn't trust him. Stauffer opened the season in the bullpen, and pitched brilliantly. The Padres let him start a game. He pitched five shutout innings, and immediately afterward hit the DL for two months. When he came back the Padres were understandably cautious. Stauffer kept pitching brilliantly.

Finally, on the 6th of September there was an emergency and Stauffer started again. He gave up one run in four innings. He's been in the Padres' rotation ever since; in five September starts, he's got a 2.25 ERA and hasn't allowed a single home run.

And that's really the story of Tim Stauffer's season. He doesn't throw all that hard, doesn't strikeout all that many hitters. But he's pitched 76 innings for the Padres this season, and he's given up exactly two home runs. If he beats the Giants in Game 161, that draft pick seven years ago is suddenly going to look pretty, pretty, pretty good. And if Stauffer keeps the ball in the yard, he can beat the Giants.

Now, Barry Zito ... Well, you probably know all about him already. This season began with such promise, but Zito enters his Biggest Game as a Giant with a 9-13 record and a 4.08 ERA ... almost exactly the same as his 2009 numbers. All told, Zito's now 29-43 as a Giant, which is somewhat less than they expected for their $43 million (so far).

Beating the Padres won't make everything go away. At the very least, that would require a few more wins this month. But it would be one hell of a start.