SAN FRANCISCO -- Baseball can be cruel. Real life even more so. Saturday, the two intersected. Barry Zito went to the pitching mound three days after the death of his father and tried to help the Giants earn a much-needed victory.
"I just try to minimize distractions whenever I pitch," Zito said afterward. "Some things are a little heavier than others. But I always try to minimize the distractions as much as possible."
Understood. But for seven innings, the minimization was probably just as difficult and exhausting as Zito made it look.
He gave up a home run to the second Miami Marlins batter he faced, Ed Lucas. This was followed by many long counts. And many tough outs. And two walks. And three deep fly balls.
And yet, after 112 pitches, Zito allowed only one Marlins run. In fact, after the homer, he permitted just one Miami runner to go as far as second base. As a result, after those seven innings, Zito handed the ball to his bullpen with the score tied 1-1, allowing the Giants to produce more eventual drama and win 2-1 in the 11th.
"But it all started with Zito," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "What a great effort he gave us. There's nothing tougher than what he had to go through. He had such focus."
This was a day, in other words, that again reminded us why professional athletes are professional athletes. They are able to perform their skill with tens of thousands of voices screaming, with opposing batters bearing down, with television close-ups capturing every twitch -- and, yes, with the death of a loved one still fresh on the mind.
For Zito, that had to be the case Saturday. After showering, he politely asked reporters to defer any personal questions, saying only that he was "doing all right" and that "it was good to be able to go out there and throw." But the relationship between Barry and his father, Joe, has been well documented. Basically, they attacked baseball together and won.
The story began when Barry was 7 or 8 years old when a Little League umpire declared that he'd never seen a kid with such a natural curveball. Joe Zito didn't know a curveball from a mirror ball. He was no athlete. He was a musician. He'd once been an arranger and conductor for singer Nat King Cole. Yet when young Barry showed a proclivity for a game, Joe went all in.
At this point, the Zito family was living in a San Diego suburb while Joe's wife served as a minister of a local congregation. Joe built a pitching mound in the backyard, schooled himself on the game and forked over $50 a week to former Padres pitcher Randy Jones for instructional lessons -- at a time the Zito family income was $262 per week.
This didn't turn Barry into an ultra-phenom, exactly. He was never asked to play on all of the best travel teams or all-star teams. Barry finally blossomed as a high school upperclassman. Joe, however, persuaded Barry to reject a $300,000 bonus after being drafted by the Texas Rangers, urging his son to play more college ball. It paid off a year later when the A's made him a first-round pick and gave him $1.59 million.
Joe then continued to be Barry's counsel throughout his pro career, riding out rough years or superb ones -- and we all know how extreme those have been -- in Oakland and San Francisco. The two talked philosophy and psychology in relation to baseball, with Joe once telling Sports Illustrated: "When a pitcher is committed to a pitch, he can throw it down the middle and the batter won't hit it. That may sound strange. But we have tested it many times."
Given this background, it made perfect sense for Barry to react as he did last week. His father was 84 and had been ill for a while. Barry could not even recall the last time Joe had been to AT&T Park to watch a game. But after Barry flew to Southern California for his father's final hours, he returned to AT&T on Thursday night, firm in the belief that he should not skip his regular turn in the rotation.
"Barry was adamant about that," Bochy said. "He didn't want to change his routine. He's been pretty strong through this."
Zito is correct about some things being heavier than others. At the end of this season, the Giants can either pay him $18 million and retain him for 2014 or pay him $7 million to walk away. Normally, you'd think something like that might weigh on a guy's brain. But with Zito, on good days or bad, you know that's no factor. His father taught his son to just go out and throw with commitment and purpose, no matter what, and let the chips fall.
Saturday, the son did just that.
Hector Sanchez's pinch-hit single in the 11th inning gives the Giants a 2-1 victory over Miami, capping an "exhausting" day and snapping the Marlins' nine-game win streak at AT&T Park. PAGE 5