SAN FRANCISCO Talk about October surprises. Ah, never mind. Talk about life.
When the Giants were introduced before the World Series opener here two years ago, Barry Zito was greeted with indifferent, if polite, applause. He was an afterthought, a disappointment, and worst of all for him, he was a bystander throughout the 2010 postseason.
Overpaid. Overrated. Undeserving. The Giants' answer to the 49ers' Alex Smith. Zito heard it all.
Yet there he was at AT&T Park again Wednesday night, only this time he was warming up while the crowd cheered, and starting and subduing the Detroit Tigers, and then ripping a single to left and driving in a run hitting back with a symbolic, resounding, "Take that."
"I think sometimes you can tell when a pitcher is really a tough competitor with the at-bat that he had," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said after his team's 8-3 loss. "I know that sounds a little strange, but he was grinding out that at-bat and ended up getting a base hit. That tells you something about Barry Zito."
You can say something else about Barry Zito these days: He might be a bargain at $126 million.
Why it took him six years to figure it out six years of personal angst and performances that angered a famously tolerant Bay Area fan base is just one of the many intriguing and largely inexplicable elements of this Giants journey.
Men mature later than women. Maybe that's it. That's what they say, anyway.
Baby-faced Ryan Vogelsong is 35. Barry Zito is 34. And while he still looks and sounds like a sort of cerebral surfer dude with his flowing dark hair and his thoughtful, frequently literal references, this is an evolved Barry Zito.
Though he seldom throws that looping 12-6 curveball that was the centerpiece of his 2002 Cy Young Award season, he has more dimensions and has become a master of locations. He added a cutter, added more off-speed pitches, became increasingly adept at keeping the ball down in the strike zone.
"I battled in September to make the postseason roster," said Zito, who is coming off his first winning season since signing that monster seven-year contract. "The last thing I would have expected at that point was to be starting Game 1. The opportunity was just magical."
And besides all of that, mere days after saving the Giants postseason with a shutout in St. Louis, he not only started and defeated the Tigers, he outdueled American League strikeouts leader and reigning Cy Young winner Justin Verlander.
Yes, him again. When Verlander last visited the Bay Area two weeks ago, he overpowered an A's team that was on cloud nine following its own remarkable ninth-inning comeback the previous night. A towering right-hander who appears even taller than his listed 6-foot-5 frame, he struck out 11 hitters with a confounding array of fastballs, cutters, curves and changeups that ranged from 70 mph into the high 90s, threw a complete game masterpiece that sent the Tigers off to meet the Yankees.
But Zito was up to the task, allowing the Tigers to nibble, but not claw away.
He gave up a walk and a single in the first inning but worked out of the jam and left in the sixth with a 6-1 lead that he helped pad with that stubborn at-bat that so impressed Leyland.
The sellout crowd was equally impressed and even more appreciative.
When Zito was relieved by Tim Lincecum, the fans rose to their feet and embraced him with a long, rousing ovation. The same man who has so heard so many boos through the years, been the target of so much vitriol, responded as he always has: graciously.
Well before he reached the dugout steps, he removed his cap, looked up briefly, then waved to the crowd.
"I get all choked up just thinking about it," said veteran Aubrey Huff. "He never once complained."
Forgiveness? Redemption? That's much too deep. This is Zito's life, but this is still only sports. It should be enough that Zito has contributed two two unforgettable Giants moments in the span of a week.