Urban: Zito shows Giants his hammer is strong

June 29, 2011, 4:28 am
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June 28, 2011


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Mychael Urban

All the talk about reconnecting with the game as it used to be, of re-learning to love it, of absorbing a familiar sense of kinship with the hard-working kids in the minors leagues, of focusing on the process and not results?Meaningless. Empty talk -- especially to fans who are very much into those pesky results. It's pretty simple: Throw a hammer like Thor and you're good.That's what Barry Zito did Tuesday at Wrigley Field, and that's why he looked like the Zito that the Giants were hoping they'd get when they paid him more money than mighty Thor himself made even in his best seasons with the Thunder.
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Prior to that, of course, Zito did what Zito often does. Depending on how you feel about the man in general, you can characterize what he did as philosophizing, rhapsodizing, rationalizing or, let's face it, eulogizing.
In short, lots of talk about baseball being fun again, only in deeper-sounding sentences.But you know what's really fun? Locking up a big-league hitter with a curveball that starts somewhere in the upper deck and ends up nestled softly in the catcher's glove, then watching the guy's face contort in a non-verbal expression of "What in the name of all things flecked with gold and accompanied by a smoking-hot harp soloist was that?"Zito did plenty of that Tuesday, and when he's doing that, he's making his 85- to 88-mph fastball look, as Jason Giambi once said, "more like 99 or 100."The bender Zito was featuring while holding the Cubs to four hits and two walks over seven innings was the best he's thrown in the bigs in years.GIANTS INSIDER GALLERY: Zito helps Giants sweep DH
So what happened? What brought back Zito's curveball from the land in which hitters spit on it to the land in which they respect, fear and flail at it?Well, improved fastball command helps prevent the former. Pop a heater into the strike zone early, at any speed, and you're in control of the at-bat; the secondary pitches become a factor. Fall behind with the fastball, especially if it's not above-average, and the hitter can wait out those secondary pitches in search of something straight and somewhat slow. That's a recipe for disaster, and Zito has cooked up plenty of those as a Giant. But thanks to some minor mechanical tweaks, his fastball command improved considerably during his time in the minors. The major change in Zito, however, has been the ditching of his slider. He added the pitch after he won the American League Cy Young in 2002, and that speaks to his personality. He's of the mind that if you aren't trying to get better -- and that's what adding the slider was to him -- you're getting worse.An argument could be made that there isn't much to improve after going 23-5 with a 2.75 ERA, but hey, that's how the guy thinks. Can't fault a guy's brain for working a certain way.He's no dummy, though, and he's never duplicated the Cy Young success since adding the slider. It's nearly impossible to throw a slider from a tradition over-the-top arm slot; by nature the pitch has to be released from something of an angle to, well, slide.Yet Zito's curveball, to achieve maximum effectiveness, has to be delivered from a traditional over-the-top arm slot. At it's best, it's a classic noon-to-six bender, and he spent his life perfecting it -- while throwing the other two pitches that helped him win the Cy, a fastball and changeup, from the exact same arm slot.So he canned the slider. Arm slot locked. And though it's taken a while to get the feel for that hammer of Thor, it's there now -- and you saw it Tuesday.

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