Signed to the richest contract ever given a pitcher six years ago, Zito went through the five most trying years of his career. An American League Cy Young Award winner at the age of 24, eight years later, things had gone so bad he was not only left out of the San Francisco rotation for the 2010 postseason, he was left off the roster of the eventual World Series champion Giants.Zito never complained. There was no self-pity. He showed up every day -- even during that postseason -- and searched for the answers to the questions created by his decline.
Cy of relief
|Tim Lincecum||3||8 2/3|
|Randy Johnson||3||8 2/3|
|Johan Santana||6||6 1/3|
|Jim Palmer||2||6 1/3|
"He made it very clear: It's not about you, the individual," said Giants right-hander Matt Cain. "It's about the team, and you have to understand it."Tim Lincecum gets it. He got a crash course in the real world this season. And he has handled it well, thanks in no small part to the counseling of Zito. Lincecum, in fact, has handled it so well that the two-time National League Cy Young Award winner, sent to the bullpen for this postseason, is likely to find himself back in the rotation in the NL Championship Series. He could even bump Zito, the possible Game 4 starter in St. Louis, or potentially assume the Game 5 start in place of Madison Bumgarner -- who lasted only 3 2/3 innings and gave up all the Cardinals' runs in the Giants' 6-4 loss in Game 1 on Sunday night at AT&T Park. The fact Lincecum came on to create some calm in a Game 1 that was threatening to get out of hand -- and threw only 24 pitches in two innings -- provides a needed option for Giants manager Bruce Bochy. With the problems the Giants' rotation has had this postseason, it's surprising they actually survived their best-of-five NL Division Series against the Reds, and advanced to the NLCS. The Giants' rotation has worked only 26 1/3 innings in six postseason games. Only two teams in postseason history have had a rotation work fewer innings in at least six -- the 1941 Brooklyn Dodgers (24 1/3 innings, seven games) and 1923 New York Giants (24 1/3 innings, six games). "We still have our options there," Bochy said of returning Lincecum to the rotation in the NLCS. "He's still available if we want in Game 4 [or Game 5]." Give Zito an assist in that regard. "I wasn't going to go up to him, but [Zito] came to me a few times, and talked about what he had been through," said Lincecum. "It wasn't all the time, but we talked about it. We talked about where you need to have your focus, what you can and can't control." And Zito's own life experiences made him a credible source for Lincecum. In Lincecum's first four full big league seasons, he was a four-time All-Star, earned two Cy Young Awards -- the first at the age of 24 -- and had a composite 62-36 record for the Giants. In Zito's first four full big league seasons with the Oakland A's, he was a two-time All-Star, won the Cy Young Award at the age of 24, and was a combined 65-36. "What I talked to him about was when you have immense success early in your career, you almost spoil people," said Zito. "Usually, a player comes to the big leagues, and the first couple of years he is getting his feet on the ground, and he gets better each year, and when he's 28 or 29, he has an impact. "Tim started out having an impact right away, creating expectations. Inevitably, every guy encounters a struggle." Some limit that struggle, which could be the case with Lincecum, who was 10-15 with a 5.18 ERA in the regular season, but this postseason has worked 8 1/3 innings in three relief appearances, allowing one run on three hits and a walk. He struck out nine. Some aren't as fortunate. In Zito's first five seasons after signing a seven-year, $126 million free-agent contract with the Giants, he was 33-61. He returned to respectability this year. The lefty was 15-8, and the Giants won his last 11 starts, during which Zito was 7-0, which earned him a spot not only on the postseason roster this time, but in the rotation. "It's easy after you have been going good [and start to struggle], to lock yourself in a box and feel everyone is against you," said Zito. "It's a hard way to survive, but I've seen players that way. They are always upset. They are mad at everyone. They are bitter. "Timmy's not that kind of person. He's more like me. He's an extrovert. I felt I could relate to him. I think he realized I understood what he was going through." That's why Zito would occasionally sit down and chat. "I let him know that I know how it feels when everybody is down on you, that the fans don't always understand that we are normal guys who happen to be blessed with a skill," said Zito. "As a pitcher, you want to win every game, and when you don't, it kills you. You don't want to be booed. You don't want to feel like you let your teammates down. "But you have to accept that and deal with it. I felt like I have a credibility where I can say those things, and he would know I understand what it's like." Consider the message sent. And consider it received. That has given Bochy some interesting alternatives to consider as he arranges his rotation for the rest of this postseason.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.