With Zito back in a regular role in the rotation, the Giants are moving closer to clinching a sixth postseason appearance in the last 16 years. They went into Wednesday with an 8 1/2-game lead on the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West, their magic number reduced to seven.
Now, don't get the wrong idea.
This isn't about how Zito has regained the form he showed with the Oakland A's, when he won an American League Cy Young Award, was a three-time All-Star and created a market value that led San Francisco to give him a seven-year, $126 million contract nearly six years ago.
It hasn't happened. And it's not going to happen.
What has happened, though, is that in an era of entitlement, Zito has battled his way through the tough times and has become a critical piece to the Giants' success. He has contributed on the field, where he helped offset the first-half struggles of Tim Lincecum.
The Giants are 16-2 when scoring at least four runs in a Zito start, and they have won his last eight starts. After going 43-61 in his first five years with San Francisco, none of which featured a winning record, he will go into a Thursday start against Colorado with a 12-8 record this year.
And he has contributed in the clubhouse, testimony to the younger Giants of the importance of finding answers, not excuses, when hard times hit.
There were challengers, both within the game and the community of Giants fans, who have spent the better part of the last six years questioning the wisdom of signing Zito after he was a focal point for former owner Peter Magowan in his search for a superstar after Barry Bonds retired.
"He and [49ers quarterback] Alex Smith are two beat-up guys in [the Bay Area sports] community," said Duane Kuiper, a former big league infielder, who is now a Giants broadcaster. "They were constantly beat down. Alex Smith bounced back. The 49ers were a field goal away from the Super Bowl. And Barry has bounced back, too.
"What's more, neither ever said, 'I told you so.' They accepted the responsibility for their actions."
Zito obviously isn't the center of attention with the Giants that Smith is with the 49ers. That, however, doesn't lessen the impact he has had on his teammates.
"There has been a lot of criticism, a lot of ups and downs, but he has been the same person every day," said Giants left-hander Madison Bumgarner. "He has never stopped working. He has not been fazed by the adversity.
"He's definitely set money-wise, but that's not what it is all about. He is showing that. He is a reminder of what the real reason behind being here is. It's a lesson for each of us. It's about respecting the game and the uniform."
Zito is certainly set financially. Assuming he pitches in the Majors next year and his 2014 option is not picked up, he will finish his contract having earned more than $140 million over 14 big league seasons. That, however, doesn't satisfy the inner competitor.
Zito's accountability for his own actions were underscored during the 2010 postseason, when he was never activated for any of the three October series that ended with San Francisco claiming a World Series championship, and then again last year, when he was bumped from the rotation with the emergence of Ryan Vogelsong.
Zito never whined. He never pouted.
"He has always been a standup guy, even when things are not going well," said manager Bruce Bochy. "One of the toughest decisions I have made in this game was in 2010 when we didn't have him on the postseason roster. We had to do what we felt was right for the club. I wouldn't say he has accepted what has happened to him, but he has handled it professionally, and he has been a positive factor on the team."
Even though Zito wasn't active for the postseason, he worked every day as if he were getting ready to start in the next day or two, keeping himself ready in case an emergency occurred.
"I think everybody appreciates the fact that whatever he is making, and whatever he has done on the field, he has never been a distraction to this team," said Kuiper.
Having turned 34 in May, Zito is in what should be the prime of his career, but instead it has been a challenge of his inner strength, and he has met that challenge.
"I have to approach my situation with all the integrity I can," he said. "That's my thought process: credibility, accountability. ... There is a fine line between accepting what happened at the moment and throwing in the towel. I try and deal with the moment, but I'm not going to sit back and let life just happen. I want to go forward, to figure out what I can do to get better and do the job I am here to do."
And in 2012, Zito has done just that.