OAKLAND – Mike Kickham joined Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum in a club of sorts Tuesday night, albeit one that doesn’t dole out handsome jackets.
None of them won their first big league start.
Almost 13 years ago, the same thing nearly happened to Barry Zito – and I still remember it like it just happened last week.
I was covering the Angels at the time and Zito was a recent first-round pick who came to the big leagues with tons of hype. His curveball supposedly defied Newton’s Three Laws of Motion, and maybe a fourth or a fifth, too.
He was facing a right-hander Brian Cooper, who later became a well regarded pitching coach in the Giants system. Earlier in the year, Cooper threw a shutout against the A’s and the rookie made the mistake of saying the hitters “played into his hands.” Those quotes were not received well in the A’s raucous clubhouse, and so they all leaned on the rail chirping at him as he warmed up.
Then they teed off. Ben Grieve hit a grand slam. They led 7-1 entering the fifth. All Zito needed to do was get three outs to qualify for the victory.
I asked Zito about what happened next. Thirteen years later, he remembered almost every detail.
“They loaded the bases with no outs,” he said. “Adam Kennedy and Erstad, he singled. Then the next guy reached base.”
Benji Gil, I reminded him. He drew a walk.
“Right,” Zito said. “Then you started getting into their big boys.”
The Angels had some big, big boys that season. Three players hit 30 homers and knocked in at least 100. Tim Salmon came three RBIs away from becoming a fourth.
Zito remembered A’s pitching coach Rick Peterson making a mound visit. The two of them spoke the same language.
“He always put things in his own terms,” Zito said. “He said, `Hey man, imagine you’re on a wave right now. Just relax like you’re surfing and ride the wave.’ Everything kind of got loose.”
Zito faced Mo Vaughn and froze him on one of those rainbow curves. Salmon tried to check his swing on a third strike.
“High fastball,” Zito recalled, correctly.
Then Zito dropped in a pair of curves to get ahead of Anderson before throwing a slider in the dirt that proved impossible to lay off.
Three dangerous hitters. Three strikeouts. The Coliseum crowd thundered.
“He was all over the place,” Salmon told me that day. “Then in that fifth inning, he found the strike zone all of the sudden.”
Zito remembered one more detail from that day. A’s manager Art Howe knew his rookie had thrown over 100 pitches and had done his work for the day. But he told Zito that he’d be throwing warmup pitches in the top of the sixth.
“So you can walk off,” Howe told Zito, “and the crowd can let you know what they’re feeling.”
Zito walked off to a standing ovation.
“Eight warmups,” he said, smiling at the memory. “That was classy of him.”
Even if the Angels had come back, and they didn’t, that’s a winning feeling that couldn’t be erased.
A manager will express confidence in his club in his public comments. But his actions often tell you something else.
Well, Bruce Bochy’s actions were telling in the third inning. He went to George Kontos with the club down 4-1. When the A’s swapped a lefty DH for a right-handed pinch hitter, Bochy took the rare step of playing matchups in the third inning. He tabbed Javier Lopez, who stranded the bases loaded.
Bochy managed for the matchup because he believed, down 4-1, the Giants still stood an excellent chance of coming back.
“We’re trying to keep it a close game and keep confidence in our offense that we’ll come back,” Bochy said. “It’s a three-run game and you’ve got to keep believing we’ll come out of it, this offense, but we didn’t.”
What about that offense?
“We’ve got some guys struggling right now, that’s fair to say,” Bochy said.
Pablo Sandoval is riding a 2-for-21 and Gregor Blanco an 0-for-17. This team definitely misses Angel Pagan in the leadoff spot. It’s not like you can just move down Blanco and stack up all those lefty bats at the bottom of the lineup.
At least the Giants will be home for two days. They’ve lost five in a row on the road and seven of eight. And they’re about to make stops in St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Atlanta.
Entering Wednesday, the Pirates (surprise!) were tied with the Braves for the best home ERA in the major leagues. The Cardinals were among the teams ahead of the Giants, who ranked eighth.
So yes, hitting on the road could continue to be a challenge in June.