Zito's struggles baffling

With the second half now under way, the Oakland Athletics find themselves in an unusual position. This is especially true for Barry Zito, the 2002 AL Cy Young Award winner.

Under Art Howe and Ken Macha, these A's have made their bones in August and September, compiling a second-half record of 198-97 after the All-Star break the last four years. But that .671 winning percentage would probably qualify as overkill this time around.

Oakland trails the surprising Texas Rangers by only 1½ games in the American League West. It is its best position at this point in the season since 1992. That's amazing considering the way that Zito, the most electrifying member of the Big Three, has lost his way.

Zito, who had been 54-25 over the previous three seasons, no longer dominates hitters with his 88-mph fastball and combination of curveballs, including baseball's biggest sweeper. He has gone 4-7 with a 4.62 earned run average in 18 starts, last winning back on June 8.

In the six starts since then, he has allowed 24 runs in 35 innings. His ratio of strikeouts to walks (24-20) belies his ability.

For the season, opponents are hitting .282 against him. That may not make him Darrell May, but it's a drastic departure from previous seasons. He held opponents to a .219 average last season and has never allowed them to hit higher than .230 over a full season.

There have been some recent signs of progress, however. Zito allowed only two runs in two of his last three starts, including last Sunday at Cleveland.

"He looked good,'' third baseman Eric Chavez told the San Francisco Chronicle. "That's promising. Hopefully, he'll be able to get a good little streak for his confidence, and he'll be the Barry we know he is.''

It doesn't sound like Zito is counting on it.

"Sucking on losses is not the result I want,'' he said. "I've got to make better pitches. ... I'm not upset, I'm frustrated with myself. I'm not putting (the first half) behind me. I'll keep going. It's not a new season, it's the same deal.''

What's been wrong with Zito? Here are five theories:

1. He misses Rick Peterson.

The long-time Oakland pitching coach is working his magic with the New York Mets, having rejoined Howe when his contract with the A's expired. Peterson's replacement, former Oakland pitcher Curt Young, is to a degree an extension of Peterson, having taught in the same style while working his way up the organizational ladder as a coach, but has had trouble getting on the same wave length with Zito.

Peterson, as much psychologist as hardballer, could talk about a variety of different subjects with Zito and find unusual ways to get the intelligent, creative Zito to focus on his next start. You wonder how much Zito misses that.

In a recent Sports Illustrated article, Zito admitted that he thinks too much. He said it might be an advantage to be "a dumb jock.''

2. He misses catcher Ramon Hernandez.

This may be a reach, as Hernandez is not regarded as the second coming of Charlie O'Brien, but Zito had worked alongside Hernandez his entire career. General manager Billy Beane ended that relationship when he traded Hernandez to San Diego in a deal for center fielder Mark Kotsay last offseason.

Damian Miller, the new catcher, is by reputation an extremely solid receiver but has done his best work with power pitchers Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior.

3. He's lost the deception with his changeup.

At least one scout has suggested that he's developed a flaw in his delivery that tips off that pitch. His changeup got hit so hard in a recent start at Fenway Park that some wondered if the Red Sox might be stealing signs.

"That makes us laugh, because we're not the brightest of guys over here,'' Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon said. "We're not smart enough to do that. We didn't know what was coming.''

But could they have sensed when he was about to throw a changeup? Young says he has reviewed tapes and seen no evidence that Zito is tipping pitches.

4. He's been bothered by speculation about a possible trade.

Given how well Rich Harden and Mark Redman are pitching at the back of the rotation, as well as the presence of rising prospect Joe Blanton in the system, some wonder if Zito is suddenly expendable. ESPN's Peter Gammons is among those who have speculated that Zito could be traded for an offensive-minded second baseman at the July 31 trade deadline.

This is surprising, given not just Zito's record but that he won't be eligible for free agency until after the 2006 season.

5. Hitters have belatedly adjusted to his style of pitching.

After the July 6 start at Fenway, Damon confirmed that Red Sox hitters did all their damage on fastballs and changeups. They had decided to lay off his curveball completely.

"We couldn't even swing at it,'' Damon said. "It was starting at our heads and ending at our ankles.''

Zito needs to be ahead in the count to be at his most effective with his curveball. He's become at least somewhat defensive on the mound, needing 17.3 pitches to get through the average inning.

Maybe Zito just had a bad year, starting with the 2003 All-Star Game.

He was selected for the team and expected to be in uniform and possibly to pitch. But commissioner Bud Selig wanted to force Roger Clemens onto the team to address a shortage of star power, and Zito was the one to go. He didn't learn he was off the team until after he had gone to a team meeting and sat through the required interviews on the eve of the game.

It was awkward, if not unsettling.

But that, like this year's disappointing first half, is in the past. The thing that matters to the A's is the future, which for Zito starts on Friday against the White Sox.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.