David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991. Show More
Need a reason to believe in Alex Rodriguez? Look no further than Barry Zito.
What does an aging, former PED-using, apparently finished slugger have to do with the junk-balling, mid-80s throwing pitcher who won Game 1 of the World Series for the Giants Wednesday night?
Enough to suggest that elite athletes aren't necessarily done when everyone decides they are. And in baseball, sunk costs don't have to mean wasted money.
We're not saying Zito justified his seven-year, $126-million contract with huge back-to-back wins, first in Game 5 of the NLCS -- facing elimination on the road at Busch Stadium -- and again Wednesday night with the Giants' 8-3 victory over the Tigers at AT&T Park.
But on this magical ride, Zito has been the Giants' David Blaine, and what he's accomplished so far is no less stunning than having a million volts surging through his body. Zito's Game 1 showdown against Justin Verlander was supposed to be Buster Douglas-Mike Tyson going in. Once again, the wrong guy landed on the mat.
"He's kind of been our lucky charm," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said.
This was not the masterpiece Zito painted to beat the Cardinals, when he threw 7 1/3 scoreless innings and struck out six to send the NLCS back to San Francisco. But it was more than adequate, and Zito kept the Tigers off the scoreboard long enough for Pablo Sandoval to excite the home fans by whacking away at Verlander with a sledgehammer.
Pushing into the sixth inning, and leaving with a 6-1 lead, is not considered a pedestrian outing in the playoffs. Zito allowed six hits in 5 2/3 innings -- the lone run coming on Miguel Cabrera's single in the sixth -- and departed to a furious standing ovation. That had to feel pretty good for a guy left off the Giants' postseason roster entirely during their World Series run in 2010.
"To mature in this game is a big deal," Zito said after learning he would get the Game 1 assignment. "That process in becoming a free agent, going to a new team, signing a big deal and dealing with everything that comes with that. So I feel like an adult in the game now."
He's also pitching like a Cy Young winner again, a decade after earning the award with the A's. The Giants owe him another $27 million guaranteed through 2013, so Zito isn't pitching for a contract right now. He's got plenty of money. Now that he's been given the chance to rewrite his legacy on the other side of the Bay Bridge, the last few chapters are more flattering.
"I couldn't be happier for him," Bochy said. "It says a lot about his mental toughness, his makeup. For him to keep grinding and trying to get better, I was glad to hand him the ball for the first game, with all he's been through and the way he's handled it."
Incredibly, Zito has chipped in at the plate as well. Back in Game 5 of the NLCS, he stunned the Cardinals with a perfect bunt down the third-base line that scored a run. Zito even shocked Verlander Wednesday night by punching a 97-mph fastball through the left side of the infield for a two-out, RBI single in the fourth.
That's what it's like to be Barry Zito right now. He wrapped up the regular season on a 7-0 streak (3.92 ERA) over his final 11 starts.
But Zito is only one of the citizens of the parallel universe the Giants currently are living in. After his departure Wednesday night, in came Tim Lincecum -- the former back-to-back Cy Young winner -- for his new job title as a middle reliever.
Zito is showing that maybe it's too soon to call him washed-up at age 34, and if the Giants do get rings this October, he will have helped them earn something that $126 million couldn't buy. Ask the Yankees about that.
A-Rod is due another $114 million over the next five years, and unlike Zito, he squandered his shot at redemption earlier this month. But if the Yankees are indeed stuck with Rodriguez, Zito has shown there can be another ending to the story.
At the very least, it's possible.