It turns out we hardly knew Barry Zito. We had him pegged as an overpriced failure, a vanity purchase that was intended to move the Giants beyond the specter of Barry Bonds – but had veered close to being a franchise wrecker.
OK, that's how I once had Zito pegged. I thought the $126 million the Giants invested in Zito was the worst free-agent signing in baseball history, considering the team was locked into a fortune to its worst starting pitcher.
But Friday, before another sellout crowd and joyous Opening Day festivities, Zito again confounded opposing hitters and former naysayers like me.
In seven shutout innings that were the difference in a 1-0 win over the St Louis Cardinals, the Giants won their 15th consecutive game with Zito on the mound – a streak that began on Aug. 7 of last year.
With the fortunes of the game and his team in his suddenly assured hands, Zito again proved one of the mysteries of baseball: What is truth in the moment can become a lie in the long run.
A few years ago, Giants watchers viewed 2013 as the seventh and final year of guaranteed money in the Zito disaster. This October was when that crooked number was finally going to be expunged from the Giants' books. Now the left-hander is one of four aces who have enabled the Giants to start the 2013 season without a single starting pitcher giving up an earned run in 26 innings.
Zito was as sharp Friday as when he saved the Giants' season by silencing the Cardinals last October in St. Louis. His triumph in a must-win Game 5 of the National League Championship Series – when the Giants trailed the series 3-1 – was almost replayed Friday with similarly thrilling results.
Now, if Zito pitches 200 innings this season, he's guaranteed another $18 million next season – meaning Zito would earn $144 million over eight seasons.
Zito once had an ERA as high as 5.87 in 2011 – an injury-plagued year that included getting broadsided in his car. He went 10-17 in 2008. He had his first winning season (15-8) with the Giants in 2012.
Yet Zito has never once shown a sense of resentment for the fallout from his failed campaigns. The media questions have moved from probing to gushing, but Zito answers the softballs with the same placid, cerebral demeanor as he did the darts.
"I'm just trying to be in the moment," Zito said. (The 15-game win streak with him on the mound) is not a continuation, but a challenge . Every day is a new day."
Zito rejected the idea he was dominant or mystical or anything other than a dedicated practitioner of a craft that sometimes can't be explained.
"No, today was a grind, " Zito said. "There were a lot of pitches I wish I had thrown better."
It's tempting to look ahead and to wonder how Zito's renewal will play out in the context of a season within his own personal journey of redemption.
Except he doesn't feel he needs to be redeemed. Zito is nothing if not impervious to sounds outside the clubhouse, the dugout and out on the mound – where he is creating a new narrative for his once-maligned career.
Despite what many of us wrote and said, it turns out Zito is about more than just the money the Giants paid him.
"I don't judge it off a result," he said. "It's not worth it to try to define yourself by the results."
Call The Bee's Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.