Zito stays focused amidst personal tragedy

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Zito stays focused amidst personal tragedy

Rael Enteen
CSNBayArea.com staff writer 

SAN FRANCISCO – Major League Baseball has a bereavement list for players dealing with a death in the family. Barry Zito wanted no part of it.

Three days after the death of his father Joseph, Zito took the mound at AT&T Park. He settled in after a shaky start to the outing to give the Giants seven strong innings in a game they would go on to win 2-1 in walk-off fashion.

[INSTANT REPLAY: Giants break through against Marlins in 11th] 

“I just try to minimize distractions when I take the mound, regardless of what it is,” Zito said. “Some things are a little heavier than others, but today I was able to go out there and stay focused and give the team a chance to win.”

The third of four games between the Giants and Miami Marlins didn’t end until Hector Sanchez’s shallow fly ball fell in front of Justin Ruggiano with the bases loaded in the 11th inning, long after Zito had departed. But Bruce Bochy knew to give credit where credit was due.

“It started with Zito,” Bochy said. “Considering what he’s had to go through, he had great focus out there. There’s nothing tougher than what he had to go through. To go out there with that focus, that’s impressive.”

While Zito was understandably hesitant to talk about the death of his father, his teammates picked him up.

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“I think we were all impressed,” said Hunter Pence, who prevented the go-ahead run from scoring in the top of the 11th with a shoestring catch. “Obviously baseball is extremely important, but there’s perspective. For him to come out and pitch the way he did and be there for us…we’re a family too playing as a team, and we’re all here for him. He went out and pitched outstanding.”

Buster Posey said that Zito, despite the personal tragedy, was his usual self heading into Saturday’s start.

“Barry is the ultimate professional, but obviously when you lose a family member, especially a parent, I can’t image what he was going through,” Posey said. “He had his routine and he stuck to it and he gave us a great performance.”

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It looked like Zito was headed for an early shower, not a great performance, after throwing 48 pitches to get through two innings. The Marlins only got to him for one run over that span, so Zito did his best to limit the damage, but a quality start did not appear likely early on.

Bochy said that Zito has proven over the course of his tenure with the Giants that he’s capable of bouncing back from early struggles, which has led to a longer leash.

“He’s probably got somewhat of a high pitch count because he’s using all his pitches and he doesn’t give in, which is a great quality,” Bochy said. “He’s also a guy that can handle it and he has shown that.”

The sentimental aspect of Zito’s outing overshadows the fact that the Giants were on the verge of losing three straight to baseball’s worst team. A loss would’ve put the Giants at .500 for the first time since April 2, the second day of the season, and on the verge of a sweep at home. Instead, the Giants improved to 24-14 at AT&T Park with their eighth walk-off win.

Gregor Blanco, leading off in Angel Pagan’s absence, reached base four times. His double to Triple’s Alley in the fifth inning bizarrely bounced high enough for a fan in the arcade seats to interfere. Zito, on first after a failed safety squeeze, was running on contact and umpires determined he would’ve scored from first had the ball stayed in play, knotting the game at a run apiece.

Zito left with the 1-1 tie in tact and turned it over to an overworked bullpen. But Bochy’s relievers combined for four scoreless innings, including 1.2 each from Sergio Romo and Sandy Rosario.

Rosario would’ve been in line for the loss if not for Pence’s gem in right. With two on and two out, Pence’s former teammate in Philadelphia Placido Polanco sent a slicing line drive the other way that found leather just before it would’ve hit grass.

“You know what’s on the line there,” Pence said. “I’m playing Polanco a little shallow, a little over. He’s really good at hitting those soft liners that way; he’s made a living off of it for a long, long time. Fortunately I was able to get there.”

Pence’s catch set the stage for a dramatic bottom half of the 11th that started when Blanco reached on an infield single.

“[Blanco] brings so much energy to the club,” Bochy said. “That’s what you love about him. He goes all out every play.”

After Marco Scutaro sacrificed Blanco to second, Posey followed with his own infield single on a close play, waving his arms wildly to beat first base umpire Mark Wegner to the call.

“They wanted it bad,” Bochy said. “You saw them going down the line in the last inning. They were doing all they can to beat those balls out. It’s good for these guys because they’re fighting.”

The hustle was rewarded after the Marlins intentionally walked Pence to load the bases for Sanchez, who sent the second pitch he saw from reliever Ryan Webb to shallow left. Unlike Pence, who appeared to put his legs into high gear on his game-saving catch, Ruggiano hesitated and didn’t even attempt a dive, allowing Blanco to trot home from third for the win.

The Giants have now gone 84 innings since their last home run, a leadoff shot by Blanco in Atlanta on June 14, but Bochy isn’t concerned.

“We’re a team that tries to keep the line moving and execute like we did the last inning,” Bochy said. “Home runs are nice, but we know it’s not our strength. They’ll come. We’re in a little rut right now, but these things seem to be streaky. Right now we’re just not hitting home runs, but you’ll see them come.”

Giants spring training Day 7: Rule change should help Bochy

Giants spring training Day 7: Rule change should help Bochy

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — On one of the many nights last season when his bullpen imploded, Bruce Bochy nearly put a catcher on the mound. Trevor Brown ended up playing an inning of third base on June 28 as the Giants gave up eight runs over the final two innings in a brutal loss to the A’s, and he said this week that he was told he was the next man up on the mound. 

That night was an odd one, as a tired bullpen was waiting for Sergio Romo to get activated off a rehab assignment and trying to get by without long reliever Chris Stratton, who had thrown 57 pitches out of the ‘pen the night before. The bench was also short because Joe Panik was about to be put on the concussion DL.

Bochy hopes he doesn’t have to deal with such a situation this season, and not just because the bullpen should be much improved. The disabled list lasts 10 days now, not 15, and Bochy is thrilled with the new rule.

“The DL thing, I really like it,” he said. “You get caught in that gray area so often.” 

Bochy met with league officials on Saturday to go over some of the rule changes. DL stints can now be made retroactive just three days, but it’s still a vast improvement overall. 

“With (position) players and pitchers it’s going to make it easier to DL guys,” Bochy said. “If you’re looking at (starting) pitchers, they could miss just one start.”

The Giants have often played a man or more short, trying to get by day-by-day to give a position player or starter time to heal. Around camp, this could be called the Angel Pagan Rule, as the former Giants outfielder often missed a week or so before officially going on the DL. At times, Bochy has been patient with players like Buster Posey and Hunter Pence, knowing that even if they missed a week, keeping them off the DL could still earn the Giants seven or eight games with a big bat back in the lineup. If a future diagnosis is that a player will miss a week, it’ll be much easier to swallow putting him on the 10-day DL than it was for the 15-day. Likewise, the Giants will take advantage of the change if a pitcher will have to miss a start. 

Bochy has said often that he would like every reliever to go on the DL during the season to freshen up. That’ll make more sense now, and it should keep the Giants from having to play as many games where the bullpen is gassed and a backup catcher is preparing to pitch. For guys like Stratton — a versatile pitcher on the 40-man roster — it should also lead to increased trips up to the big leagues to fill gaps. 

INJURY UPDATE: Pence (side muscle) took 25 swings during a live BP session in the cage and Bochy said he’s doing much better. That was about the only significant activity Sunday. Once again, the workout was rained out. Bochy said the Giants have enough time to get guys ready for the Cactus League opener on Feb. 24, but they’ll likely hold some big-name pitchers out of the early games. Brandon Crawford and Posey will get plenty of early starts to prepare for the WBC. 

PROSPECT WATCH: If the early games are turned over to prospects, Dan Slania will be an interesting guy to watch. Slania is listed at 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, so he always had the look of an imposing reliever. But his greatest success last season came after a surprise move to the rotation. 

Slania, a 2013 fifth-round pick out of Notre Dame, got a call on his 24th birthday telling him to prepare to start because of an injury in Richmond’s rotation. He had not started a game since high school, but his four-pitch mix worked. He had a 5.32 ERA out of the bullpen but it dropped to 1.48 in 10 starts for the Flying Squirrels. In two Triple-A starts, he struck out 14 over 13 innings while allowing just eight hits and two runs. The Giants put him on their 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. 

“He had a great year last year,” Bochy said. “He’s in camp for a reason. He’s got great stuff and a good makeup.”

RULE CHANGE: One more thing that came out of that rules meeting: Managers who are out of challenges now have to wait until the eighth inning to ask an umpire to look at a play.

QUOTABLE: “We know he’s better off taking some days. We talked about it (with him). He agrees that it’ll help him.” Bochy on Pence’s workload. The right fielder is coming off two injury-marred seasons, and the Giants have no intention of even trying to get him back to his Iron Man days. 

Tomlinson still a fit as Giants put bench together

Tomlinson still a fit as Giants put bench together

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The “options game” can be a cruel one. It can also be one of the most important parts of spring training. 

If two players are relatively even at the end of camp but only one can be optioned to the minors, he’s usually the man left out. Giants officials have already made reference to this several times in discussing left field, where Jarrett Parker — who is out of options — would surely be claimed off waivers if the Giants try to sneak him back to the minors before Opening Day. Mac Williamson, on the other hand, can be shuttled back and forth. 

The same holds true for Kelby Tomlinson, and while it was easy during the first week of camp to see him as the odd man out, manager Bruce Bochy said that’s not the case. What do all the veteran infielders mean for the young one already in-house?

“It hasn’t affected anything for Kelby, really,” Bochy said. “It’s all about competition for spots on this team.”

Tomlinson played 54 games in 2015 and 52 a year ago, but the Giants put a clear emphasis this offseason on finding backup infielders. Jimmy Rollins, Jae-gyun Hwang, Orlando Calixte and Gordon Beckham were among those brought in before camp, and Aaron Hill arrived on the fourth day. Sure, Ehire Adrianza — who was seemingly perpetually out of options — is no longer around, but if the Giants carry just two backup infielders, one of them will almost certainly be Conor Gillaspie. 

Tomlinson isn’t bothered by the offseason of additions. He said he can take knowledge away from six weeks spent with guys he grew up watching.

“Rollins’ prime was right in my later high school years,” he said, smiling. “I’ve got a lot of guys to learn from and watch. It’s a little of both (a competition and learning experience). We’re all fighting for the same job, but we’re still on the same team and we’re all trying to learn from each other and help each other.”

Tomlinson is the incumbent, and the Giants certainly know all about his speed and ability to play all over the field (he continued to take fly balls this winter, just in case). They also now know that Tomlinson adds something that’s needed on any bench. Last season, he emerged as one of Bochy’s most reliable pinch-hitters. 

Tomlinson’s seven pinch-hits were tied for second on the team after Gillaspie’s 11. He was 7-for-17 in a pinch, adding three walks. Tomlinson’s simple swing and up-the-middle approach have proven perfect for important spots. He’s a .315 career hitter with runners in scoring position, a .373 hitter in situations baseball-reference deems “late and close,” and a .367 hitter in “high leverage” spots.

“I’m just trying to compete up there every at-bat, especially in that pinch-hitting role,” Tomlinson said. “It’s a grind, but that makes it fun when you give the team a quality at-bat. Even if it’s not a hit, you go up there and try to see five pitches and have a good at-bat.”

Tomlinson has given the Giants plenty of them over parts of two seasons. With Brandon Crawford headed for the World Baseball Classic, he is sure to see increased time this spring, and while the options game or non-roster list might catch up to him, the Giants haven’t forgotten what they already have. 

“He gives us versatility,” Bochy said, “So he’s in the mix, too.”