On April 5, 2013, the San Francisco Giants beat the St. Louis Cardinals by the score of 1-0. On September 12, 2004, the Oakland Athletics beat the Cleveland Indians by the same score. In both games, Barry Zito outdueled Jake Westbrook. My guess is that few people last week were looking forward to the Zito/Westbrook matchup as a classic pitching duel. It’s not exactly Koufax vs. Marichal.
The fact of the matter is that both pitchers appear to be past their best years. But a pitcher’s job is to give his team a chance to win. In the 2 games separated by 9 years, Westbrook gave up 2 runs over 14 and 1/3 innings, and Zito gave up no runs over 14 innings. Both games are classic examples of pitchers doing their jobs well. And for the more than casual baseball fan, both games are classic examples of why baseball is such a remarkable sport.
Let’s start with Barry Zito who now has a lifetime record of 161-132. His 2012 campaign with the San Francisco Giants was his best since winning the Cy Young Award in 2002. The intervening 9 years were not pretty. He finished under .500 in 6 of those 9 years; his ERA was twice over 5.00 for the year, and only three times under 4.00. He led the league in losses in 2008 with 17, and he was left off the Giants’ post-season roster altogether in 2011. The days when his appearance was accompanied by a chorus of boos far outnumbered the days when his appearance elicited applause from the crowd.
But in 2012, Zito regained a measure of respect by posting 15 wins against 8 losses, his first winning season since 2006. He also racked up a pair of post-season wins, including a win in the World Series opener against Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers. Back in July of last year, when Zito was on his way to having his best year since 2002, I wrote about his importance to the Giants’ chances of winning the pennant. As it turns out, he was a critical component for an organization that exemplifies the meaning of playing as a team. And on Friday, he left the mound at the end of 7 shutout innings while the crowd chanted, “Barry, Barry,” something unimaginable a year ago.
Zito’s story is one of redemption.
Now let’s look at Westbrook. He’s 98-96 lifetime, so he’s won a few more than he’s lost. He’s not an overpowering pitcher; his 128 strikeouts in 2010 is a career best. His best year in terms of win percentage was 2004 when he was 14-9, his lone All Star year. He’s never won more than 15 games in a season. However, he averages 202 innings pitched a year, which is a testament to his overall durability. And in spite of being almost exclusively a starter since 2004, he pitched twice in short relief for the World Series champion Cardinals in 2011, earning the win in game six by pitching a scoreless 11th inning against the Texas Rangers. If you’ve ever watched Jake Westbrook pitch, you know he’s a battler. Every time he takes the mound he brings an intensity to the game that, frankly, too many MLB pitchers seem to lack.
Westbrook’s story is one of relentless perseverance.
Barry Zito is 34 years old; Jake Westbrook is 35. Nine years ago Barry Zito struck out 10 on his way to a victory over Jake Westbrook who gave up a solo homerun over 8 innings and not much else. Both were young pitchers in their prime. And they battled that day they way you’d expect young, talented pitchers to battle. Nine years later, the result was the same as it was in 2004. Two guys, both past their prime, delivered in a way that echoed a performance of almost a decade earlier. Two guys, who probably aren’t big enough or strong enough to play in any other major professional team sport, dominated a contest for an afternoon in front of a sellout crowd of nearly 42,000 people in the same way they’d dominated almost a decade earlier. Two guys, who have a lot in common with the average baseball fan who seeks redemption in his own life, who has no choice but to persevere, and who wishes he could do the things he did a decade ago, did their best to give their teams a chance to win. And I’m telling you, all of that could only happen in the great game of baseball.