Posted: Wednesday October 24, 2012 9:00AM ; Updated: Wednesday October 24, 2012 2:33PM
Joe Lemire
Joe Lemire>ARCHIVE

Zito, Verlander took very different roads to World Series Game 1

Story Highlights

Barry Zito was left off of San Francisco's postseason roster two years ago

Justin Verlander tuned up for his start by throwing live batting practice

The Tigers and Giants opent he World Series Wednesday in San Francisco

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Barry Zito
Barry Zito's hard work despite years of struggles endeared him to his manager and teammates.
AP

SAN FRANCISCO -- The news that was six years coming had to wait a few more hours. Giants manager Bruce Bochy tried calling starter Barry Zito, the $126 million man undiplomatically left off all three postseason rosters in 2010, to inform the veteran lefthander that he'd be tonight's World Series Game 1 starter. And Zito didn't pick up, again and again. "He left his phone at the ballpark," Bochy said, "so I couldn't get ahold of him."

After his distraction-free morning, Zito later learned the news. Six years after he signed a mega-contract to be the franchise's ace, only to greatly underwhelm, and two years after he fell to his professional nadir, when he was told he wouldn't be a contributor as his team pursued a championship, Zito was being handed the ball to throw the first pitch of the World Series.

Zito wouldn't elaborate on the joy of his turnaround from two years ago to now -- "It's not important to reflect right now," Zito said. "There's work to do" -- even if his face could scarcely contain a smile as he met the media on Tuesday. Finally, when pressed, he acknowledged, "I'm excited to pitch every time I get on the mound. This is a more exciting opportunity than most."

That says something, as the Giants have certainly had an exciting fortnight. They just completed a second straight improbable three-game comeback, rallying from down 2-games-to-0 to beat the Reds in the NLDS and winning three in a row to advance in the NLCS after trailing the Cardinals 3-games-to-1.

San Francisco wouldn't be here, hosting the Tigers in the World Series, without Zito. In Game 5 of the NLCS, Zito threw a masterpiece: 7 2/3 shutout innings against the Cardinals, the the NL's second-highest scoring team this season. St. Louis is a great fastball-hitting team; Zito's fastballs, however, didn't exceed 86 miles per hour, which was the same speed his Game 1 World Series counterpart -- the Tigers' Justin Verlander -- averaged with his changeup this season.

By any measure, Zito had a strong bounceback season in 2012, making 32 starts with a 4.15 ERA, numbers that were eerily similar to his 2010 credentials (33 starts, 4.15 ERA). Thanks to better run support his record flip-flopped from 9-14 in '10 to 15-8 in '12. Most importantly, he earned his spot in the postseason rotation with a great finish this season, posting a 3.03 ERA over his last six outings.

"It's huge and I know he's going to savor every moment of it," injured Giants closer Brian Wilson said. "It's a little poetic justice, I think. It's a testament to his hard work and his consistency. Now he's pitching Game 1 and we've got all the confidence in the world, and I know he does too."

To illustrate the latter point, Bochy revealed this: On the day in 2010 that Zito learned he hadn't made the playoff roster, he went and through a bullpen session to make sure he stayed in sharp in case he was summoned as an injury replacement.

"I couldn't be happier for him," Bochy said. "It says a lot about his mental toughness, his makeup."

Under normal circumstances, the Giants wouldn't be starting Zito in Game 1, opting instead for ace Matt Cain, but Cain was needed just two nights ago to win NLCS Game 7, thereby pitting two of the most unlike pitchers in baseball against each other.

"One's a crafty, soft-throwing lefty and the other one is a dominating, hard-throwing righthander," Giants first baseman Aubrey Huff, who Verlander's teammate for two months in 2009, said. "So yeah, obviously stuff-wise it's completely different."

But each club's Game 1 starter isn't the only contrast.

The Giants just won a World Series two years ago, while the Tigers have waited since 1984.

The Giants are indisputably built on pitching -- their three highest-paid players are all pitchers making at least $15 million this year -- while the Tigers' top two earners are both sluggers, with Verlander's $20 million salary making him their only starter making as much as $4 million in 2012.

Not that each franchise's resource allocation has played out according to plan: the Tigers only scored eight more runs this year but also only allowed 21 more.

And while the Giants were playing thrilling elimination games over the weekend, the Tigers were home mimicking spring training.

This layoff for Detroit since it swept the ALCS from the Yankees might be more of a differentiating factor in the opening games than their negligible differences in offense and pitching. The Tigers won the pennant on Thursday, leaving them with four days before even knowing their opponent for the World Series and five days off before playing a game.

Excuse me, a meaningful game. The 2006 Tigers had six days off before the World Series, and their play appeared to suffer, so this time Detroit manager Jim Leyland filled the gap with simulated games against players from their instructional league team, as well as live batting practice against their own pitchers.

"Leyland had a great plan for us," catcher Gerald Laird said. "We were really getting after it."

In addition to the games against the organization's young minor leaguers, the club also had its starters -- including Verlander -- face its own hitters in live batting practice. "Justin doesn't even like to lose in card games," Laird said. "He was out there trying to get guys out." Confirmed utility player Don Kelly, who batted against his ace, and spoke with a tone of understatement, "Yeah, he was throwing pretty good."

The Tigers hope that their effort and approach in those intrasquad scrimmages will carry the day. "It's a focus thing," Game 2 starter Doug Fister said. "You get out of it what you put into it."

The Giants and Tigers are putting very different pitchers on the mound tonight, but both are hoping to get the same thing out of it.

 
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