Barry Zito has bounce his step, swagger again
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Barry Zito scurried from drill to drill on day one with a smile and a pep that showed he's a new man heading into the final year of his mega contract.
He even seemed to enjoy the simple process of shadow throwing, with only a towel in hand and no ball, as San Francisco's pitchers and catchers began spring training on a gorgeous, cool day in the desert at Scottsdale Stadium.
Zito suddenly has some nice momentum, not to mention the swagger that carried over from his comeback 2012 season.
Manager Bruce Bochy has no doubts Zito will stay on a roll after the left-hander delivered two crucial wins during last fall's run to a second championship in three years for the franchise: a victory in Game 5 of the NL championship series at Busch Stadium facing elimination, then in the opener at home of a World Series sweep against the Detroit Tigers.
Zito hopes this year is even better. He would love to stay put beyond this season if all goes well.
"Oh, yeah, this is where I want to be," Zito said. "I would love to play baseball in San Francisco until I'm happily riding off into the sunset. I think last year was a big reconnection with me and with the fans. And I think that's the beauty of the game, and that's why people come out here and fill up the seats, because the game is so unpredictable. One day there could be a countdown to when you're going to be leaving the team and the next day they might want you back.
"My heart and soul is in the Bay Area, it always has been," he added. "How could you not want to be a part of this? This is as special of a situation as there is in professional sports."
General manager Brian Sabean hasn't ruled that out, especially if Zito can deliver another year like the last. Zito, 34, went 15-8 with a 4.15 ERA in 32 starts and 184 1-3 innings before his impressive playoffs. And this is the same guy who was left off the roster for all three rounds during the club's 2010 run to a World Series title.
The 2002 AL Cy Young Award winner with Oakland, he has an $18 million option for 2014 with a $7 million buyout.
"He's done a lot for the organization and especially if you're talking about the young pitchers in this organization," Sabean said. "Especially in the rotation through the years, with the teammate he is, how up front he is, the work ethic. His coming out party, or his chance to shine, certainly was not only needed but was well deserved. And we need him. We need everybody that's in this rotation to give us 180, 200 innings. If they do that, the bullpen won't be taxed, and they'll win their share of games and the rest will be history."
There has been scrutiny from every angle, on every high-priced pitch he throws.
"I don't think I'm ever past that," Zito said. "As a professional athlete, as somebody that has been in the game for 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 that stuff, and how much do I let it affect me personally and on the field."
He sure turned things around in a hurry early last season. It surprised Bochy and the rest of the San Francisco brass.
"This guy really had so much confidence last year and really believed that he could get back on track, which he did," Bochy said. "I go back to last spring, and it was awful. He'll tell you that. The way that he figured it out is one of the more impressive things I've seen in this game. Going back to the first start of the season, when we didn't know what we would get. With the terrible spring that he had, he goes out there and throws a shutout at Colorado, and of course what he did down the stretch and in the postseason there's no reason why he wouldn't carry this into this year."
Zito has trained himself to stay even keel through the many trials since joining the Giants before the 2007 season on a $126 million, seven-year contract.
Still, the boos in his own ballpark during the down times did hurt.
"I mean I'm human, so there's always that factor," Zito said. "It's just trying to make sure I keep my priorities straight and remember what's important."
The two-time NL Cy Young Award winner has changed his approach, his preparation and even his look entering 2013 as he tries to re-establish himself as an elite starter after last season's struggles. He said all went well Wednesday.
Zito has played a big part in that process for Lincecum, as a mentor, teammate and friend.
And Lincecum was among the players most happy to watch Zito's resurgence.
"I feel like it's hard not to be inspired by him and what he's been through here in general," Lincecum said. "Coming from a really good career over there in Oakland and not coming up to the expectations he probably felt like he should have, but taking it in stride and coming out on top and not letting people take him down."
NOTES: World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval, who faces constant scrutiny about his waistline, will focus on a conditioning program this spring. "You go back to 2011 and he showed up in as good of shape as I've seen him in," Bochy said. "This year, he's got to lose a little bit. He knows it. He'll be out there conditioning, doing his extra work to get it off before spring training. I know we talk about it a lot, it wasn't that long ago players used spring training as the time to get in shape." ... Giants vice president of baseball operations Bobby Evans expects 1B Angel Villalona to report on time Friday. But RHP Ramon Ramirez is still held up in the Dominican Republic as his visa paperwork was only recently filed. ... Bochy's advice to son, Brett, on first day: "I just said, `You're not going to make the club today."
Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press
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