DENVER -- Barry Zito is something like a hothouse plant.
He needs the right conditions to thrive. He needs a trio of skilled outfield that will run down his higher yield of fly balls. He needs clean defense behind him. And more than anything else, he needs run support.
You’ve heard the stat many times: Zito is 127-8 in his career when his team gives him at least four runs while he’s in the game. He’s 42-4 as a Giant in 60 of those starts.
No wonder last year, when the Giants went 11-0 in Zito’s final 11 regular-season starts, they averaged 5.96 runs in his outing -- the third highest run support of any pitcher in the NL.
This year? The Giants have scored five runs for Zito three times in his 23 starts. And you don’t want to get started talking about that outfield defense, or their trouble playing a clean nine innings.
An orange tree stands a better chance on tundra.
Of course, Zito still has to execute pitches. And there’s no way he could punt all responsibility for his 9.41 ERA in 10 starts away from AT&T Park, or the club’s 0-10 record in those games.
But maybe, given the context, it’s possible to do just a tad more than gape speechless at Zito when he tells you, in his honest opinion, that he’s executing better pitches with more frequency now than during some of his playoff starts last year.
That’s what he said after giving up five runs in four innings and taking the loss in a 6-1 defeat at Coors Field on Monday.
[RECAP: Rockies 6, Giants 1]
“This game has been tough for me lately, but I felt I was putting everything where I wanted, for the most part,” said Zito, who didn’t have any issue with the curveballs that Todd Helton and Charlie Blackmon hit out of the ballpark.
“I looked at the tape and Buster was getting his glove down, like it was going to be on the ground. Same pitch to both guys. I mean, I could have bounced it, but I’ve got to tip my cap.”
Zito is entering his final weeks as a Giant; his $18 million option won’t vest and the Giants are sure to choose a $7 million buyout, thank him for his professionalism when left off the playoff roster in 2010, and praise him for his second half last year -- including that season-saving victory at St. Louis and then his Game 1 win in the World Series.
Funny thing. Zito picked apart those games recently, and realized he got away with a lot of mistakes.
“I wasn’t executing as many pitches as I have at times this year,” he said.
Again, you don’t give up 27 runs in 23 2/3 innings, as Zito has done over his last six starts, without making a lot of mistakes. But throughout Zito’s entire seven-year tenure as a Giant, belief and confidence have been as important as release point and movement.
When he’s playing behind a talented defense, and with a lineup that stays in fourth gear, it imbues what he’s doing on the mound. And when he lacks those things? That’s when a Zito start can be painful to watch.
Even the sprinklers went off accidentally as he tried to focus on throwing a pitch in the fourth inning. And that happened after Gregor Blanco didn’t dive for a bases-loaded bloop, and Marco Scutaro frittered away an easy double-play grounder.
Zito looks back at the middle of this season -- June and July -- and acknowledges he was guilty of “just trying too hard” and getting out of his pitch-to-pitch mindset as a result.
“But as far as stuff and all that, the stuff is pretty much exactly the same,” he said. “It’s pretty much about being in command of yourself.”
Giants manager Bruce Bochy said he hasn’t decided whether Zito will make another start, saying only that the left-hander “made some good pitches at times.” (The manager didn’t share Zito’s view of those two curveballs, though, saying he was having trouble getting the breaking ball where he wanted against lefty hitters.)
It’s down to this: every time Zito takes the mound as a Giant, it could mark the end. Nothing like that thought to jar your focus, right?
“Tomorrow will take care of itself,” Zito said. “I think it says that in the Bible.”
Should Gregor Blanco have left his feet to dive for Juan Nicasio’s blooper?
“It could score some runs there (if he misses), but in that situation, we’re not in a position to give up any runs,” Bochy said. “So you do hope they’ll take a chance.”