Barry Zito was left off the postseason roster during San Francisco's run to a World Series title two years ago. Thanks to a strong finish to this season, he'll get a chance to help the Giants stay alive in these playoffs.
In his first postseason game in exactly six years, the veteran left-hander will seek to force a decisive game in the NL division series with another strong outing against the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday.
Before this season, it seemed the Giants might reap few benefits from their seven-year, $126 million contract for Zito, who won the 2002 AL Cy Young Award while with Oakland. In his first five seasons with the club, the left-hander was 43-61 with a 4.55 ERA and hadn't won more than 11 games in any campaign, including a 9-14 finish in 2010.
That changed this year as he won 15 games, his most since his final season with the A's in 2006. Zito also finished the regular season on a seven-game win streak and was 5-0 with a 2.35 ERA over his final five outings.
"The last month of the season was great. Just personally I've been able to stay focused and make my pitches and not let things go fast around me," he said. "When the game goes fast is when we have problems out there, keep my focus, pitch?to?pitch has been productive and it's what I look to do tomorrow night."
With those efforts, Zito beat out two-time NL Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum for a spot in the Giants' playoff rotation. His start will mark his first postseason appearance since a 5-1 loss in Oakland's AL championship series opener against Detroit on Oct. 10, 2006. He's 4-3 with a 3.25 ERA in seven playoff outings.
"It feels great because being a player in the major leagues we want to help our team the best we can. It was tough in 2010 watching the boys go all the way and not being able to help out with that. So part of the team camaraderie is wanting to contribute," Zito said.
The Giants have won the past 11 games in which Zito has pitched but have lost in each of his last four appearances against the Reds. He did his part in two matchups this season by allowing one run and five hits over six innings in each but only got a combined two runs of support.
The Giants don't appear poised to give Zito much help again as they've scored four runs over the three games of this series and are batting .126. They've also failed to generate early hits in the last two contests but managed to stave off elimination Tuesday with a 2-1 win in 10 innings.
After getting shut out in Game 2, San Francisco didn't get its first hit Tuesday until two outs in the sixth inning. The Giants, though, did enough to keep the Reds at bay and Buster Posey scored the go-ahead run when Cincinnati third baseman Scott Rolen, an eight-time Gold Glove winner, mishandled Joaquin Arias' two-out grounder.
"I think we have to be really happy that we came away with this win tonight because we didn't swing the bats very well at all," Posey said.
While Zito will make a long-awaited playoff start, the Reds haven't officially decided who will be on the mound to open Game 4. Johnny Cueto, a 19-game winner, is still dealing with spasms in his back and right oblique, which limited him to eight pitches in Saturday's series opener.
Manager Dusty Baker indicated his two likely options for Wednesday were Mat Latos or Mike Leake. Cincinnati is seeking its first home win in the postseason and first trip to the NL championship series since 1995.
Latos helped the Reds survive Cueto's early exit by yielding only Posey's solo homer and three other hits over four innings Saturday. He's 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA in two starts against the Giants this season and has given up a combined three runs over his last four overall appearances, spanning 24 innings.
Leake is not currently on Cincinnati's playoff roster and the Reds would have to remove Cueto for him to join. Cueto then would have to sit out the NLCS.
"It's very difficult, but it all depends if your ace can't go or whatever it is," Baker said. "So you have to go with the healthy bodies. You hate missing, that's part of the consideration, you know, is us going without (Cueto). We realize what's at stake and that's part of the decision, if we think he's going to be able to go in the next series."
Leake is 3-0 with a 0.77 ERA over his last three starts against the Giants and gave up one run and nine hits during a complete-game victory June 29 in San Francisco.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
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