Barry Zito Finally Earns His Ginormous Contract

Well, Barry Zito finally did something to justify the $126 million contract the Giants gave him before the 2007 season.  In what was the most important start of his major league career, Zito flummoxed the Cardinals for 7.2 innings, as Zito and two relievers ultimately shut the Cards out in the first elimination game of the series.

Zito’s exceptional and, at least in this quarter, unexpected performance pretty much started and ended with his ability to command his pitches.  None of his pitches hit more than 86 mph on the radar gun, but he got ahead of hitters consistently and walked no batters unintentionally.

It was truly an outstanding pitching performance from a pitcher whose stuff is now marginal for a major leaguer, but who has a great deal of experience and inherent pitching smarts.  All six of Zito’s strike outs were of the swing-and-miss variety, mostly on 84 to 86 mph fastballs up and in that even great hitters like Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday couldn’t catch up with because Zito effectively had their bats looking for something even slower and in a different location.

Zito’s bunt base hit in the Giants’ half of the fourth to drive in the Giants’ fourth run of the inning was also brilliant, at least on Zito’s part.  How David Freese could have been playing back on that play is mystifying.

Zito has a career batting average of .097 and hit only .075 this year in roughly 60 plate appearances.  There was almost no way he was going to get a clean hit off Lance Lynn, and Freese should have known this.  Although Freese doesn’t have a whole lot of major league experience (he’s in his third year in the Show), he’s 29 years old and in his seventh year of professional baseball.  You can’t make mistakes like that if you want to win the pennant.

Lynn’s thowing error to start the Giants’ scoring and set the stage for a big inning was much more significant, but the mistake was much more understandable.  He’s a rookie who was trying to be aggressive and get two outs on the play.

The play’s biggest mistake was really made by young middle infielders Daniel Descalso or Pete Kozma who failed to figure out whose responsibility it was to cover second on a grounder back to the pitcher.  Lynn’s mistake was going ahead with the throw when he saw Kozma was late to cover, instead of taking the sure out at first.  Still, it’s hard to fault a young player (Lynn is 25 and in his fourth year of professional baseball), who makes a mistake because he’s playing aggressively.

For those youngsters watching at home, I hope you noticed that right fielder Hunter Pence’s great sliding catch in the bottom half of the fifth inning occurred only because Pence used both hands in trying to make the play.  The ball actually hit his bare hand first and deflected into the heal of his fielder’s glove where Pence was then able to pin it with his bare hand.

With the big outfielder’s gloves in use for the last generation or so, 99.9% of the time it isn’t necessary to use two hands to catch the ball.  Even so, the other hand should be up there next to the mitt, so that when that one time in a thousand play happens where the ball pops out, hits off the heal of the mitt, etc., the outfielder still has a chance to stuff the ball back in with his bare hand.  Having the bare hand up there also cuts down the time to make the exchange for the throw back in to the infield.

Failing to use two hands when it would be easy to do so is one of my many pet-peeves, along with watching major league players make the first or third out of an inning at third base (particularly when the player’s team is behind in the game — it happens a lot more often that it should) or hacking away at the first pitch of an at-bat when the team is down by three or more runs in the last three innings of the ball game and the guy on the hill is not a control pitcher.

Finally, I was not thrilled with home plate umpire Ted Barrett’s ball-strike calls in tonight’s game.  He’s got a 1990’s strike zone — few strikes called above the belt, strikes called at the bottom of the knees, the pitch two inches off the plate outside (but not inside) thrown to the target called a strike.  I prefer when umpires call the strike zone described in the rule book, which most umpires now more or less do.

However, what really bothered me was Barrett’s inconsistency.  In the late innings with the Giants ahead 5-0, the same pitches an inch or two off the plate outside were called strikes when thrown by the Cardinals’ hard-throwing relievers, but not when thrown by the Giants’ Barry Zito and Sergio Romo.  Consistency in an umpire’s ball-strike calls are more important than conformity to the defined strike zone, because if the umpire is at least consistent, each side’s pitchers and hitters at least know what the umpire’s strike zone is by the end of the game’s first three innings.

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