Baseball

Barry Zito draws positive reviews in first Cactus League outing for A’s

Oakland pitcher Barry Zito throws in the bottom of the first inning of Thursday’s game between the A’s and the Chicago Cubs Thursday in Mesa, Arizona.
Oakland pitcher Barry Zito throws in the bottom of the first inning of Thursday’s game between the A’s and the Chicago Cubs Thursday in Mesa, Arizona. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Barry Zito took the mound at Sloan Park on Thursday afternoon a little more than 15 months removed from his last game in a major-league uniform, but he said it felt as if he hadn’t missed a beat.

“It doesn’t feel like a year and a half,” Zito said. “You just kind of go right back to where you were.”

Making his first Cactus League appearance as a non-roster invitee to A’s camp, the veteran left-hander pitched two innings and allowed two runs on a second-inning home run by Chicago Cubs third baseman Mike Olt. The game was called after nine innings with the score tied 2-2.

Zito almost escaped his outing unscathed. He retired the first five batters he faced on a Cubs squad that split up Thursday to play both the A’s and Giants. And he got two strikes on his sixth, Chris Coghlan, before grazing Coghlan with a pitch. Olt then hit a 2-2 changeup from Zito over the wall in left-center field.

Overall, reviews of Zito’s return to a big-league mound were positive.

“I thought Barry threw the ball well,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “The velocity looked pretty good. … I thought he located his changeup, ... threw a couple balls up, but for a guy who hasn’t pitched in a year, I thought he was pretty impressive.”

Zito’s fastball was clocked at 86 mph on the stadium radar gun, and he mixed in a changeup and curveball, including one big breaker that froze Cubs catcher Miguel Montero for a third strike. Zito did not throw the cutter he used during his later seasons with the Giants, saying he’s comfortable right now going back to a three-pitch repertoire.

“I thought he did a great job commanding his fastball,” A’s catcher Luke Carlin said. “And whatever the velocity was, it definitely looked faster. You could tell by the swings from the hitters. They weren’t on it.”

Zito was maybe the least effusive critic of his own outing, saying; “All things considered, I thought it was all right.” He said his “stuff felt pretty good,” though he doesn’t have a consistent feel for the changeup this early in spring.

As for facing professional hitters again, Zito said it was “definitely fun to go compete out there.”

He faced a starting lineup mostly made up of Cubs regulars, and struck out third- and fourth-place hitters Starlin Castro and Montero.

He also got some defensive help from third baseman Brett Lawrie, who snagged a sharp one-hopper from leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler for the game’s first out.

“He bailed me out,” Zito said. “I told him, ‘Good picking me up there’ in the dugout.”

Lawrie returned the compliment, saying Zito “looks like he just pitched last Thursday.”

Zito remains a longshot to make the A’s rotation – he’s competing against starters who were in Oakland last season and several prospects obtained in big offseason trades – but his spring debut was by all accounts encouraging.

“Great energy out there, you could tell there was some intensity,” Melvin said. “Good for him, first time out.”

Notes – Switch-pitcher Pat Venditte pitched a 1-2-3 third inning that featured a quirky moment when Fowler, a switch hitter, had to wait for Venditte to declare which arm he was going to use before choosing a batting helmet with a flap covering the correct ear.

▪ Reliever Tyler Clippard, a candidate for fill-in closer while Sean Doolittle recovers from a shoulder injury, threw a scoreless inning in his first spring outing, stranding two runners. Carlin said Clippard’s changeup is “one of the better ones that I’ve seen, and I’ve been blessed to see some good ones.”

▪ Coco Crisp’s first game playing left field featured one defensive chance, a routine fly ball. “It was fine,” said Crisp, who is moving over from center.

▪  First baseman Nate Freiman has a strained back muscle and could miss two weeks.

Call The Bee’s Matt Kawahara, (916) 321-1015. See his baseball coverage at sacbee.com/mlb. Follow him on Twitter at @matthewkawahara.

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