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September 26, 2013
Zito closes 2013 with a win, reflects on seven years as a Giant

SAN FRANCISCO -- Barry Zito wasn't ready for it to end. Not his start Wednesday night, not his season, not his tenure in a Giants uniform.

Not after just five innings and 77 pitches from an arm that, with the exception of one stint on the disabled list, made every start asked of it since it inked a seven-year, $126 million contract back before the 2007 season. Not with a 5-2 lead against the Dodgers and, in his ears, the cheers of a fan base that so often it seemed he would never win over under the weight of that contract -- until he did last year, over the course of two starts.

"I felt good out there," Zito said Wednesday night. "I wanted to keep going. I wanted to throw a complete game. Last time in a Giants uniform, I wanted to end it in style."

But the ending, when it came, was abrupt. After a brief conversation with Zito following the top of the fifth inning, in which Zito "was fighting" to stay in, manager Bruce Bochy elected to pull him with his spot in the order leading off the inning. No opportunity for a curtain call, or one last walk off the mound with the AT&T Park crowd knowing for a fact that it was the end.

"It wasn't a situation where you're thinking about a curtain call, to be honest, as much as doing all you can to win tonight's game," said Bochy, citing that Zito hadn't pitched in a game since Sept. 2 and had taken a line drive off his leg in the fifth.

"He thought he had a lot left and he could go out there and give us another inning or two. That's a tough call. He almost had me talked out of it, to be honest. But I was just concerned. ... He's taken some bullpens, but still he hadn't gone deep in a game for a while, and you have some concern for the pitcher."

And so Zito's final line will go down like this: five innings pitched, four hits, two runs, one earned, no walks, one strikeout -- and a win. The Giants beat the Dodgers, 6-4, with Sergio Romo nailing down his 37th save when Nick Noonan dove to rob Hanley Ramirez of a single for the final out in the ninth.

It preserved Zito's first win since May 30, after he had lost his last eight starts before being relegated to the bullpen. It validated what this was -- one last opportunity for Zito, whose club option for next season almost surely will not be exercised, to go out on a high note after a season of so many lows.

"It was very unexpected to come in yesterday and have (pitching coach Dave Righetti) come ask me if I could go tomorrow," Zito said. "I said definitely, I'm always ready. To be able to get this one against the Dodgers and do it at home, come out and see the fans one more time -- very special."

Zito was visibly frustrated when pulled after the fifth. "I let them know, this is my game, I'm going to go out there and shut them down," he said later. "(Bochy) said all right and walked away, and then I went to get my bat and he had second thoughts. I was frustrated. But I understand and definitely stick behind Boch."

As for a chance to leave to the crowd's appreciation -- Zito smiled and said he would've liked that too. "There's not a lot of chance for closure, I think, in sports," he said. "Guys sign contracts, they come to cities, they're kind of like the city's own. And there's never really good-byes.

"But that's National League baseball," he said. "You've got to pinch hit."

When the game did end and Zito was announced as the winning pitcher, those fans who remained sent up a cheer for the pitcher who finished the year 5-11 with a 5.75 ERA. In seven years as a Giant, Zito went 63-80 in the regular season. That record, though, does not include the two biggest starts of his career -- Game 5 of last year's NLCS, in which he helped the Giants stave off elimination in St. Louis, and Game 1 of the World Series, when he beat Justin Verlander in a game many had already inked in as a Tigers win.

Those games alone will likely define Zito's tenure in San Francisco in the eyes of many Giants fans. Others no doubt will feel Zito never did enough to validate the dollars in his contract or live up to the expectations that came with it.

Zito, on Wednesday night, said he still remembered where he was when he heard that contract was going to be finalized. He was sitting in his car, he said, outside a gas station in Studio City. He said he "knew it was going to be one heck of a ride, on the field and off." When he actually signed the contract, Zito said, general manager Brian Sabean told him to "tattoo that number on my forehead."

"I didn't know quite what that meant," Zito said. "I found out."

Over the years in San Francisco, it came to define him. He posted losing records in his first five seasons as a Giant, only breaking that run with his 15-8 mark last year. During the second half of last season, the Giants suddenly could not lose behind Zito. They won his final 11 starts before the playoffs, where he managed to at least alter his legacy for this team, if not define it.

"On the field and off the field, a lot of things happened in these years," Zito said. "I got married and became a Christian, lost both my parents. Just so much. And on the field, obviously had some lows there for a while and also this year, and then the World Series in 2012 for me was such an incredible experience. I'm so grateful I got to experience that and be a part of it and help bring it home for San Francisco.

"Being from Southern California, never really being familiar with the Bay and coming up here for 14 years, coming over to the big city side these last seven, it's been a lot. And it's been great you know?

"It's been 95 percent great," he added with a smile. "And the other five has been -- terrible."

Much of this year seemed to fall in the latter. After beating the A's on May 30, Zito was 4-3 with a 3.88 ERA. He did not win again over the next two months before being sent to the bullpen in August, where he also struggled in relief. Away from AT&T Park, he went 0-9 with a 9.56 ERA. Even on a team going nowhere a year after its second World Series in three seasons, Zito could not keep his place in the rotation.

But with the Giants shutting down Madison Bumgarner for the final week of the season, Zito got one last chance to end on a high note Wednesday night. And while it was over quicker than he would have liked, the left-hander said it was a significant start. After so many bad outings in a row, Zito said, this start allowed him to "kind of prove to myself I'm still able to get guys out." With the future uncertain really for the first time in his 14-year career, that's a comforting thing to know.

"I definitely know I still love pitching," Zito said. "I still love the game. It's still in my heart. If I had any doubts, going out there tonight reminded me that I do."

And now what? Zito is headed toward free agency, at 35 years old and coming off a lost season. He said he has no idea where he'll be when spring training rolls around.

"Just going to go home this offseason, take a few weeks off and see what my heart tells me," he said. "My body's still healthy and my mind's fairly healthy. It's been injured here and there along the way, but I think I can manage."

One thing that is in Zito's immediate future? Getting on a surfboard. "That's something I've definitely missed the last seven years," he said.

And after the Giants part ways for the offseason, following Sunday's season finale, who knows when Zito will next have occasion to return to San Francisco? Perhaps it will be next season in another uniform, as Brian Wilson is currently doing with the Dodgers. It may be just to spend time in the city that he has, at least in a way, come to call home for the last seven years. That's plenty of time to pick out a few favorite restaurants and local haunts.

No doubt they'll recognize him there. Had things stayed the way they were three years ago, when Zito was riding the lowest of his lows, having been left off the Giants' playoff roster ahead of their 2010 World Series run, that might not be such a good thing.

And now?

"I didn't think I was ever going to be able to show my face in San Francisco again," Zito said. "I think now I'll come back and at least have people have smiles on their face."

* A few assorted notes from the Giants' win. Tony Abreu had another nice game in place of Marco Scutaro, recording a career-high four RBIs, three on a bases-loaded triple that got the Giants on the board in the second inning and one on an RBI single in the sixth. Abreu also made a nifty backhand play and glove flip to help get Zito out of the fourth inning following Brandon Crawford's error that allowed a run to score, though Abreu also scuttled a potential double play in the sixth by simply whiffing on Pablo Sandoval's throw from third. After the game, Bochy said Abreu has "done a nice job since he's been here."

-- Buster Posey appeared to clip his fractured right ring finger against the elbow of Nick Punto in the seventh inning. Punto struck out on a check swing but stuck around to argue and Posey caught his hand against Punto's elbow throwing the ball to third base. After a walk to the mound and brief visit from the trainer, Posey stayed in the game -- and then made a nice defensive play in the eighth, barehanding Michael Young's dribbler in front of the plate, wheeling and throwing Young out by a half-step.

-- Pablo Sandoval's two-run home run in the fourth inning was his first homer at AT&T Park since May 21 against the Nationals. It had been 44 games and 155 at-bats since that homer.

-- Romo needs three more saves in the Giants' final four games to become the fourth Giant with a 40-save season. The others are Robb Nen (four), Rod Beck (one) and the guy in the other dugout Wednesday night, Brian Wilson (two).

-- After the season ends Sunday, the Dodgers will be heading to the playoffs as N.L. West champions, while the Giants will be heading home. In what qualifies as a small consolation, the Giants on Wednesday clinched the season series over the Dodgers for the second year in a row. They're 10-8 against the Dodgers this year. It's Edinson Volquez (9-12, 5.77) against Tim Lincecum (10-14, 4.44) in the finale Thursday night.

-- Matt Kawahara

Bochy on Zito: 'It's been a pleasure to have him here'

Zito: 'I wanted to go nine; I was pretty upset when I came out'

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About Bay Area Baseball

Matt KawaharaMatt Kawahara was born in Sacramento and attended McClatchy High School and UC Berkeley, where he wrote for the independent student paper The Daily Californian. He graduated from Cal in 2010 and started at The Sacramento Bee as a summer intern. He joined The Bee’s sports staff in fall 2011.
Phone: (916) 321-1015.
On Twitter: @matthewkawahara.

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