SAN FRANCISCO – Barry Zito never expected to start a World Series opener. Years ago, he learned not to count on anything in his baseball career.
Many never figured Zito could win Game 1, either. Not because he hasn't been downright good going on three months now, but because he was up against Tigers ace Justin Verlander — the reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner with a 3-0 record and 0.74 ERA so far in the postseason.
Zito has defied the odds and shown the skeptics in a remarkable 2012 comeback. He did it again Wednesday night, pitching the San Francisco Giants past Verlander, Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and slugger Prince Fielder in an 8-3 victory.
The hype of baseball's October stage, in front of the home crowd, hardly fazed him.
"You can't get too excited. When we're nice and calm, we always play our best baseball," Zito said. "Our talent is able to come out. But when you start kind of buying into all the hype and everything, you lose yourself a little bit, and so I was just very adamant on keeping everything slow pretty much from when I got up today."
That approach can go for his entire season, actually. Zito never got ahead of himself, and when things began going well and the wins started stringing together, he stuck to his mantra: have fun, make pitches, give the Giants a chance.
And boy how that has worked.
After years of being labeled baseball's most overpaid pitcher, Zito took the ball Wednesday and thoroughly outshined Verlander to give San Francisco a 1-0 edge and some serious momentum in the best-of-seven series. He sent the orange-crazed sellout crowd into a Zito-fueled frenzy.
"You can't go out and try to make things happen," Zito said. "You can't go try to strike guys out or get ground balls. You just have to take every pitch one at a time and give everything you've got to each pitch and let baseball play out from there."
Three home runs from Pablo Sandoval helped Zito's cause.
The left-hander watched his teammates clinch the World Series title two years ago in Texas, never playing a part on the field that postseason after he was left off the roster. That was all the motivation he needed to revive his career in his early 30s.
Now, he has the Giants one win closer to another championship after a dazzling World Series debut. Zito has just about earned his $126 million contract in a sensational span of six days. A hefty chunk of it, anyway.
"I battled in September to make the postseason roster," Zito said. "The last thing I would have expected at that point was to be starting Game 1. Just the opportunity was just magical. To be able to go up against Verlander and give our team a chance to go up 1-0, and the fact that we won, it's just kind of surreal. It's just a pleasure to be a part of it all."
Last Friday night at Busch Stadium, Zito pitched a season-saving 5-0 victory against St. Louis and sent the Giants home trailing the defending champion Cardinals 3-2 — and they rallied again to reach a second World Series in three years.
For anyone who doubted Zito could deliver on the big October stage, while facing the daunting task of dueling with Verlander, he didn't flinch once. And when two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum came out of the bullpen to replace him in the sixth, Zito ran off to a roaring standing ovation and offered a quick tip of his cap before disappearing into the dugout.
During his 2012 transformation back to reliable starter, the 33-year-old Zito never wanted the focus to be on him or how he has accomplished it all, but rather what he could add to make the Giants a winner and playoff contender again. And, possibly, win another World Series ring in the process.
Nobody is questioning Zito's talents now. His line of one run on six hits, three strikeouts and a walk in 5 2-3 innings was hardly spectacular — but it rarely is for Zito. He is doing just what manager Bruce Bochy asks of him: giving the Giants a chance to win.
"Especially in the down times, he could not have been more of a high-class, respectful, dignified professional," Giants CEO Larry Baer said. "I think the reason 43,000 are cheering Barry are the reasons that all of us in the front office and clubhouse are so ecstatic about, is good things happen to good people. The temptation in sports is to blame somebody else when things go down — the pitching coach or the manager, the ballpark, the league, the this, the that — he never once (did). He always said, 'It's on me, and I'm going to own it and figure it out.' And here we are."
Zito even added an RBI single in the fourth, following up his bunt base hit in Friday's win, as Giants starting pitchers drove in a run for the fourth straight game.
This is the ultimate win for Zito, years in the making. Not that he will say it quite that way. That's not how he operates.
When a struggling Zito was told he wasn't going to be on the postseason roster in 2010, in one of Bochy's toughest conversations with a player, the pitcher immediately went to work. He threw a bullpen session, he kept himself ready if needed — but never got the chance. It hurt to the core, even if he never said it.
He tried different deliveries and pitching motions, he added a cutter to his repertoire to give him four solid pitches to keep hitters guessing.
When Bochy told Zito he would go Game 1, it became one of the manager's best conversations with a player.
Zito first pitched to chants of "Barry! Barry!" and later to hollers of "Zito! Zito!" Who could have seen this memorable World Series moment coming for him, only two years after all the boos, from every direction, in his home ballpark?
The Giants have won Zito's last 14 starts, and he hasn't lost since Aug. 2 against the Mets. Zito went 15-8 this season for his most victories since joining the Giants on a seven-year contract before the 2007 season.
"He's kind of been our lucky charm," Bochy said. "Fourteen games now we've found a way to win his ballgames. He's just had great focus out there."
With the Giants, Zito has never been the dominant pitcher he had been across the bay as a member of Oakland's Big Three with Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. Fans quickly gave up hope of Zito turning things around when he went 43-61 over his first five seasons with the Giants.
In a strange turn of roles, it was Lincecum — who pitched the Game 5 World Series clincher against the Rangers in 2010 — who came in for Zito. Lincecum credits the veteran pitcher for showing him how to better handle the struggles, like this season when The Freak fell into a long funk.
"It was great. Obviously he's riding the highs right now," Lincecum said. "He did great his last outing and once again did a great job for us today. He's got to go against Verlander and that's a tough guy to match up against, but he did his job. He just focused on what he had to do."
Lincecum came through, too. He pitched 2 1-3 perfect innings of relief, striking out five.
Lincecum's outing marked the first time one Cy Young Award winner relieved another in the World Series since Baltimore's Jim Palmer came in for Mike Flanagan in 1983 against the Philadelphia Phillies, according to STATS LLC.
Zito and Lincecum shared a nice moment after this one.
"He's a lot tougher than people think and he's got a lot of pride and respect for the game," general manager Brian Sabean said of Zito. "He really wanted to be out there."