TEMPE, Ariz. – One spring ago, the names in the Angels’ “A” lineup – Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton -- would’ve posed a nightmare for Barry Zito.
Instead, the swings those hitters took only summarized what has to rank as Zito's most poised and productive Cactus League in seven seasons with the Giants.
In his final start before the team breaks camp, Zito made effective pitches in traffic while holding the Angels to a run in five innings. He finished the Cactus League with a 3.00 ERA in five games, struck out 17 (!) in 18 innings and didn’t allow a home run.
Those stats don’t count a rainout start against the Los Angeles Dodgers in late February when Zito got roughed up a bit before a hailstorm fell on Scottsdale Stadium. But there’s no need to gerrymander the numbers. Zito has looked like a different pitcher all spring.
“I felt pretty good today,” said Zito, who allowed nine baserunners but limited the damage. “Ideally, I want them to be picking up any kind of movement late. That inhibits them to hit it on the barrel most times.”
Pujols and Hamilton usually find the barrel. They did go single-double in the first inning after Zito made mistakes while ahead in the count. But Zito got ahead 0-2 again on Mark Trumbo before getting him to fly out.
The real test came in the fifth after the first two batters reached on a walk and a single. Zito threw a series of curves and cutters to get Trout to fly out to center for the third time in three confrontations. Then he froze Manny Aybar with a third-strike curve. After pitching around Pujols, Zito threw three breaking pitches – a slider and two curveballs – that Hamilton chased out of the zone to strike out and end the inning.
Even against league MVPs, late movement tends to work.
I asked Zito: Even in spring training, did a situation like the fifth-inning jam almost mimic the intensity of a game that counts?
Zito offered a response that meshed with the ultra-serious demeanor and body language he’s displayed all spring:
“There’s no mimicking anything for me,” Zito said. “I’m in the fire out there. I don’t have it made by any means. Every day is a grind. I need to prove myself every pitch, and I need to approach it that way.”
And what about those 17 strikeouts in 18 innings? Remember, just a few years ago Zito had a spring when it took him four starts and more than 70 batters faced before someone swung and missed at one of his pitches.
“You can only go for strikeouts a certain portion of your career,” Zito said. “(After that), you can only sequence your pitches as well as you can, and when you do that well, it can lead to strikeouts.
“I’m just giving it everything I’ve got with every pitch.”
He also managed to block a Hamilton grounder from scooting through the middle in the fourth inning. The ball went off Zito’s foot and second baseman Marco Scutaro made an all-in-one-motion scoop pass to first base in time for the out.
It was so smooth, you could swear Zito and Scutaro worked on that play in Oakland.
“Kick-saved that one,” Zito said.
Zito has one more tuneup Friday when the Giants play the A’s at AT&T Park. Then he’ll get the home opener when the Giants raise the World Series banner April 5.