As Giants right-hander Tim Hudson left the mound after the fifth inning of Saturday’s Bay Bridge preseason finale against the A’s, a loud cheer went up from the decidedly bipartisan crowd at O.co Coliseum.
The cheer was for Barry Zito, who was jogging in from the bullpen to make his first appearance since 2006 with the A’s in the stadium where he, Hudson and Mark Mulder formed the so-called “Big Three” in Oakland’s rotation in the early 2000s.
“All we needed was Mulder to go down to the bullpen and come in after him,” Hudson joked later. “That would’ve been the topper.”
Zito, who rejoined the A’s this spring as a nonroster invitee after taking last season off from baseball, pitched a scoreless inning in his final spring outing for the A’s and afterward was assigned to the minors as the A’s finalized their Opening Day roster.
After the A’s 2-1 loss to the Giants, Zito said he intends to accept his assignment and will begin this season at Triple-A Nashville.
“I’m going to take it. I’m going to just continue to go have some fun pitching,” Zito said. “That’s been my goal all along – I was going to take a year off and then I was going to come back. I’ve been having a lot of fun this spring, so I just want to keep doing that.”
Zito, 36, said his main goal this spring was to prove to himself he could still compete against major-league hitters and he accomplished that. Zito finished the spring with a 4.79 ERA in 202/3 innings, but that figure was inflated by one bad inning in his final appearance in Arizona.
Still, the A’s had no room for Zito in their rotation and the left-hander has maintained he wants to be a starter. Zito signed with the condition that he could opt out if another team offered him a major-league roster opportunity, but none did. So he will head to Nashville – “Good music town,” he said – to get stretched out as a starter and, most importantly, keep pitching.
“I didn’t stay in shape for a year to come back here and go all in and go sit at home,” Zito said. “Why should I rush to go sit at home? A lot of retired guys I’ve talked to and played with over the years, I think they ended up bitter at the end; they kind of rushed into that. A lot of the guys I talked to actually regretted that they hadn’t just kept going.”
Zito said he talked this spring with Rickey Henderson, who continued playing long after his major-league career ended. “Rickey was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he didn’t stop playing baseball just because a team didn’t want him,” Zito said. “So all of us non-first-ballot Hall of Famers shouldn’t have more pride than Rickey, you know?”
Manager Bob Melvin said having Zito at Triple A is an asset for the A’s. He provides rotation depth – though long reliever Jesse Chavez would likely be the first option if the A’s needed to replace a starter – and a veteran example for the younger pitchers the A’s have at Nashville.
“I didn’t know him (before this spring), I’d never even met him before, and I’m a huge fan now,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “He works as hard as a rookie does; he prepares as hard as a rookie does. … Anybody that’s around him, our developing guys, will be better from watching how he goes about his business.”
Zito demurred when asked if he was surprised not to receive a major-league opportunity this spring: “I don’t know; I don’t know what’s in (teams’) heads. I didn’t get a chance to face a lot of the starting lineups in spring training, so maybe that’s it.” He said that agent Scott Boras did alert him when he first decided to take a year off that, if he tried to come back, he would have to prove his durability and effectiveness all over again.
But, Zito said, “It’s fun. Having to prove yourself, and not have it given to you, it’s fun.”
The A’s final roster contained no big surprises, with right-handers R.J. Alvarez and Evan Scribner claiming the last two spots in the bullpen and both Billy Burns and Tyler Ladendorf making their first Opening Day roster with starting outfielders Josh Reddick and Coco Crisp injured.