SAN FRANCISCO – When left-hander Barry Zito became a free agent after the 2006 season, the former AL Cy Young winner wanted to stay in the Bay Area.
The Oakland A's weren't about to pay him the open-market rate to remain, so the cross-Bay San Francisco Giants stepped up, handed him a seven-year, $126 million contract and made him the future face of the franchise that was looking for a star attraction to step in for Barry Bonds, who was to retire at the end of the 2007 season.
Three frustrating years later, Zito is finally relaxed and winning, arguably pitching better than he ever has before, which has the Giants feeling even better about their NL West hopes.
Face it, this is a team built around its rotation. To have Zito pitching back at the level of excellence he established when he was in Oakland, and Jonathan Sanchez -- who continues to emerge -- stepping into the rotation behind Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain makes that Giants rotation as good as, if not better than, any in baseball.
Suddenly the patchwork job on the offense, which added the serviceable bats of Mark DeRosa and Aubrey Huff during the offseason, is looking like enough for the Giants to make a serious run at the NL West.
The Giants allowed two or fewer runs in 12 of their 22 April games, tying with the Mets for the best mark in the majors for the month.
Zito's velocity isn't there. His fastball is averaging roughly 86 miles per hour, but with a regained command of the pitch, an 11-mph differential between the fastball and changeup, and a drop-off-the-table curveball, Zito has turned the boos at AT&T Park into chants of adulation.
It's all about the results on the mound.
Zito was 31-43 with a 4.56 ERA his first three years with the Giants.
He's 4-0 with a 1.53 ERA in his first month of year four with the Giants.
And the confidence seems to grow with each start.
"I don't think April has gone this way for me before,'' Zito said.
It hasn't. He has won four games in April only once before -- 2003. And he was 4-2 in the month that year. And the only other April in which he had a winning record was when he was 3-2 in six starts in 2001, Zito's first full big-league season.
April in San Francisco? He was a combined 2-11 in 15 April starts his first three years with the Giants. He had a 5.44 ERA those three Aprils. He didn't win his fourth game a year ago until June 21, when he improved his record to 4-7. And it was July 5 before he earned win No. 4 back in 2008, when he opened the season losing his first eight decisions, and didn't gain his first victory until his 10th start, May 23.It was in his first year with the Giants, 2007, that Zito made the only relief appearance of his career.
The self-induced pressures Zito felt to justify his massive contract have been relieved.
"When you realize you can handle going 0-8 and getting sent to the bullpen, you realize there's not a lot to worry about,'' Zito said. "It's not a coincidence. You just realize that all you can be is yourself. You can't be anything more.''
It has allowed Zito to have fun on the mound again.
It was evident in the final inning of his eight-inning domination of Colorado on Friday night. When shortstop Juan Uribe made a running catch of a foul ball, Zito pumped his fist as the fans rose to their feet, and the left-hander let out a scream, although he did downplay the emotional moment.
"Oblivious,'' he said when the emotions were mentioned.
He, however, is very aware of the success he is enjoying again.
"I've got an appetite right now for success,'' he said. "For whatever reason I've had to build that appetite back up. They say a lion can't hunt on a full stomach. ...
"For me, it's obvious the business side of the game got a little too involved in my game, and I'm boiling it back down to simply just baseball. I never stopped working, but (baseball) had become a little more than just getting hitters out.''
The focus, however, has returned, and so has Zito's success.
Colorado, picked by many to win the NL West, had a rocky April. The Rockies opened the season with starting pitcher Jeff Francis and closer Huston Street on the disabled list. In the final week of April, they disabled starting pitchers Jorge De La Rosa and Jason Hammel and also No. 5 hitter Brad Hawpe.
Now they see if they have built up the anticipated depth. The offense seems to be handling the absence of Hawpe, although they aren't replacing his power.
Instead, the Rockies called up Eric Young Jr., whose game is built around speed, and whose arrival has prompted manager Jim Tracy to tinker with his lineup, putting Young, Dexter Fowler and Carlos Gonzalez -- three bona fide base-stealing threats -- in the top three spots, and dropping Todd Helton behind cleanup hitter Troy Tulowitzki into the No. 5 slot Hawpe had filled.
As for the rotation, the Rockies are going to take a look at prospects Jhoulys Chacin and Esmil Rogers, a converted shortstop.
Can they handle the challenge? Time will tell, but for a team to advance to the postseason they do need some surprises to emerge during the season.
In 2007, when the Rockies rallied in the final weeks of the regular season to earn the NL wild card and then advance to the World Series for the only time in franchise history, three members of their season-opening rotation -- Rodrigo Lopez, Aaron Cook and Jason Hurst -- spent August and September on the disabled list.
Among the pitchers given an opportunity because of those injuries were Ubaldo Jimenez, now the Rockies' ace, and Franklin Morales, who is filling in as the closer during Street's absence.
A'S AND PAINS
- Oakland's quick start to the 2010 season has been derailed by injuries. The A's, whose losing streak reached five games Saturday, saw their disabled list grow to 10 players Friday with the addition of catcher Kurt Suzuki. And right-hander Justin Duchscherer is a candidate to become No. 11 because of a hip injury. The A's have used the disabled list 74 times since the start of the 2007 season -- no small factor in why the A's have had three consecutive losing seasons.
- Dodger general manager Ned Colletti had plenty of reason to dress down outfielder Matt Kemp for a lack of hustle, but Colletti can't be absolved of all blame for the Dodgers' struggles so far this season. At the end of last season it was no secret that the Dodgers needed to improve their pitching staff, but the major move in the offseason was re-signing Vicente Padilla to a contract that guarantees him $5.025 million, which is almost as much money as Texas paid to have him not pitch for them the final two months of last season because the Rangers didn't want his personality in the clubhouse.
- After going 5-0 with a 0.50 ERA last April, Zack Greinke went 0-2 in five April starts this year. Before too much is made of Greinke's failure to win a game, consider he did have a 2.57 ERA in the month, and allowed two or fewer runs in four of the five starts.
- Milwaukee right-hander Trevor Hoffman had four blown saves (out of seven opportunities) in April. He failed to convert more than two saves in April only one other time in his career -- 1997. In fact, he has had more than one blown save in April only five times in his career. He allowed 18 baserunners -- 15 hits and three walks -- in nine innings. The Brewers had Hoffman on an abbreviated program in the spring, looking to keep him stronger during the season, but did it keep him from being ready for the season to start?