Zito determined to build on strong finish

Zito tries to build on strong finish

Barry Zito would prefer to reverse many aspects of his 2007 season. There's one, however, that's worth sustaining into this year.

Zito dominated the Dodgers in last season's finale, allowing two runs and five hits in eight innings at Dodger Stadium as the Giants won, 11-2. He has a chance to create an attractive bookend to that triumph on Monday, when he'll be San Francisco's Opening Day pitcher in Los Angeles.

"We played well in Dodger Stadium last year," Zito said, referring to the Giants' 6-3 mark at Chavez Ravine. "I know we're going to have some confidence going in there. It's important that we get started on the right foot and show the Dodgers that we're ready to play, and also the league. I'm excited that I get to have the ball in my hand that day."

For much of the spring, Zito looked like a dubious choice as the Giants' No. 1 starter. He allowed seven runs or more in three of his first four Cactus League assignments, recording a 14.92 ERA. But his 5 2/3 shutout innings on March 21 against the White Sox muted the skeptics.

Zito has endured plenty of cynicism since becoming a Giant. The seven-year, $126 million contract he received before the 2007 season, which at the time made him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history, immediately prompted observers to declare that he wasn't worth it. The 8-11 record and 5.13 ERA he built in his first 25 games didn't help.

But Zito recovered in his final nine starts, posting a 3-2 mark with a 3.10 ERA and a .200 opponents' batting average. Although Zito's 11-13 record and 4.53 ERA overall were career worsts, his strong finish generated plenty of hope among the Giants for this year.

"Last year, during the course of the season, he was a different pitcher," manager Bruce Bochy said. "What he should feel good about was how he finished the season. That's what he needs to build on to carry into this season. I don't look at the middle of the season when he had some rough starts, and he shouldn't either. That's behind him."

So is the scrutiny that came with becoming the highest-paid pitcher in the league.

"Even if there still is," Zito said, "I'm not perceiving it that way now."

Zito gave the doubters fresh material this spring when he altered his pitching motion for the second year in a row. Last year, he tinkered with his stride in February before returning to the delivery that helped him amass a 102-63 record with Oakland from 2000-06. This time, Zito waited until his third Cactus League start before pulling his surprise. He no longer brought his hands over his head from the windup, explaining that this change synchronized his hands with his kicking leg more properly.

"I think my stuff has later movement," Zito said. "You always want your stuff to move as late as possible so the hitter can't gauge it and basically determine where the ball's going to be when he swings at it."

Zito has struggled in his previous Opening Day starts, losing all three of them while compiling a 9.49 ERA. This includes last year's opener against the Padres, who defeated the Giants, 7-0, as Zito surrendered three runs (two earned) on four hits in five innings.

This kind of history never entered Bochy's mind as he named Zito to pitch Game 1 after the first workout for pitchers and catchers.

"When Barry hits the mound, we expect to win and we expect him to give us a chance to win," Bochy said. "That's not ever going to change for us."

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.