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The Giants' other Barry dilemma
SAN FRANCISCO — The boos began before Barry Zito even took the mound for the San Francisco Giants home opener.
The idiosyncratic left-hander, brought in with a gaudy $126 million contract to be the face of the Giants in the post-Barry Bonds era, delivered an underwhelming first season in 2007, going just 11-13.
This year, the heckling has only grown louder.
Zito has lost all six of his starts and posted a 7.53 ERA. Earlier this week he was demoted to the bullpen, and today he will miss what would have been his seventh start — the first time in his career he's missed his turn to pitch.
Zito plays guitar, observes a personal dress code that's quirky to say the least and has practiced yoga. The latest turn in his career is a lot to meditate over.
"From my standpoint, this is a bump in the road, and it's a big bump," Zito said. "It's a battle. It's stuff that I've gone through, but there hasn't been the scrutiny around it because of the market or the contract. But I've gone through this."
His velocity is down significantly, his command has been off and his trademark nasty curveball is fooling hitters less than ever.
It's a far cry from the dominant 23-game winner who won the 2002 AL Cy Young Award with Oakland and outdueled Johan Santana in the playoff opener in 2006, just two months before signing his contract with the Giants.
Today Santana owns the only pitching contract richer than Zito's, at $137.5 million. He's 3-2 with the New York Mets — or exactly three more wins than Zito has notched this year.
When the Giants open a weekend series at Philadelphia, Pat Misch will start in Zito's place. Zito will be available out of the bullpen today for the first time.
"We don't have a target date when he's going to go back into the rotation — I think sooner than later," manager Bruce Bochy said. "He's had slow starts before, maybe not to this extreme. He'll come out of this, and I think he'll be stronger for it, too."
Before Zito signed his contract and crossed San Francisco Bay, his eccentric personality was well-established.
He's been known to pair garish, pulled-up striped socks with plaid shorts. He's taken special pillows on the road, as well as candles and bath salts on the road to help soothe himself the day after a start.
So far, he has faced the setback with his typical positive mindset and answered every question from reporters.
"I'm not going to get the attitude of sequestering myself from the team, you guys. I take everything in stride," Zito said. "I don't resist the microscope. It's a new challenge. There's a lot of growth and strength that comes out of these things."
In May 2006, the Giants did something similar when Matt Cain struggled, skipping his turn in the rotation once and using him in relief before he returned to his starting role.
But Cain was a rookie at the time, not a nine-year major leaguer who's headed for his 30th birthday on May 13 — nor was Cain making anything close to Zito's $14.5 million salary for this year.
"Zito's a guy we're always going to look up to," Cain said. "He's a different kind of leader. He's a quiet guy. I think it will be good for him. He's having a rough time right now, but he's a competitor and this is not going to stop him. He's not going to quit. We want him to have the same success he had in Oakland."
The Giants will re-evaluate Zito's situation Monday, but can go with a four-man rotation for now because of off days.
"I can't say enough about how Barry's handling this," Bochy said. "It's not easy to make a move with a guy who's had the success he's had. Sometimes you've got to make a change. He totally understands what we're doing, and he's fine. He wants to do what's best for the club. He's a class guy, a professional."
Whether the Giants are regretting making a seven-year commitment for so much money to Zito isn't the focus within the franchise right now. It's to get Zito fixed, and as fast as possible.
"I'll give a better answer to that in four or five years," owner Peter Magowan said. "I'm obviously very disappointed. Barry is, too. Neither one of us signed up for this, frankly, and we both know that."
Zito's contract includes an $18 million option for 2014 — it becomes guaranteed depending on the innings he pitches in 2011 to 2013 — with a $7 million buyout that could increase the value of his deal to $137 million. Zito also has a full no-trade clause.
Scouts say Zito's signature curveball is no longer snapping the way it used to, perhaps a sign he's lost arm strength. His fastball is being clocked in the low 80s when it used to be he reached 90 mph with his four-seamer.
Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti said he was not aware of any health concerns.
After answering a barrage of questions for a second straight day Tuesday, Zito got to work with Righetti during a bullpen session. The velocity likely won't return, said Righetti, who dealt with a similar case when Shawn Estes had to change his ways in 2000 while dealing with a shoulder injury.
"How can you throw harder? I've never seen it, other than a guy getting hurt and getting a new arm," Righetti said. "I think he can win with the stuff he's got. He needs to compete against himself. Right now he's in the world where he's dealing with a lot of other things instead of competing against the other team. ... "I told him, 'I don't care if you fly to Africa in between starts. If you get people out, I'll pay for it."'
Righetti figures Zito might get his confidence back with a couple of successful innings of relief.
This week, the Giants even faced questions about whether they might send Zito to Class AAA Fresno for a bit. That isn't in the plans.
"I mean, we've got to do something," Magowan said. "We can't just go on [as if] five days from now things are all of a sudden going to be different. ... But it's a significant problem and we've got to try to work through it."