SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Barry Zito never expected to start a World Series opener. Years ago, he learned not to count on anything in his baseball career.
Many never figured Zito could win Game 1, either. Not because he hasn't been downright good going on three months now, but because he was up against Tigers ace Justin Verlander — the reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner with a 3-0 record and 0.74 ERA so far in the postseason.
Zito has defied the odds and shown the skeptics in a remarkable 2012 comeback. He did it again Wednesday night, pitching the San Francisco Giants past Verlander, Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and slugger Prince Fielder in an 8-3 victory.
The hype of baseball's October stage, in front of the home crowd, hardly fazed him.
"You can't get too excited. When we're nice and calm, we always play our best baseball," Zito said. "Our talent is able to come out. But when you start kind of buying into all the hype and everything, you lose yourself a little bit, and so I was just very adamant on keeping everything slow pretty much from when I got up today."
That approach can go for his entire season, actually. Zito never got ahead of himself, and when things began going well and the wins started stringing together, he stuck to his mantra: have fun, make pitches, give the Giants a chance.
And boy how that has worked.
After years of being labeled baseball's most overpaid pitcher, Zito took the ball Wednesday and thoroughly outshined Verlander to give San Francisco a 1-0 edge and some serious momentum in the best-of-seven series. He sent the orange-crazed sellout crowd into a Zito-fueled frenzy.
"You can't go out and try to make things happen," Zito said. "You can't go try to strike guys out or get ground balls. You just have to take every pitch one at a time and give everything you've got to each pitch and let baseball play out from there."
Three home runs from Pablo Sandoval helped Zito's cause.
The left-hander watched his teammates clinch the World Series title two years ago in Texas, never playing a part on the field that postseason after he was left off the roster. That was all the motivation he needed to revive his career in his early 30s.
Now, he has the Giants one win closer to another championship after a dazzling World Series debut. Zito has just about earned his $126 million contract in a sensational span of six days. A hefty chunk of it, anyway.
"I battled in September to make the postseason roster," Zito said. "The last thing I would have expected at that point was to be starting Game 1. Just the opportunity was just magical. To be able to go up against Verlander and give our team a chance to go up 1-0, and the fact that we won, it's just kind of surreal. It's just a pleasure to be a part of it all."
Last Friday night at Busch Stadium, Zito pitched a season-saving 5-0 victory against St. Louis and sent the Giants home trailing the defending champion Cardinals 3-2 — and they rallied again to reach a second World Series in three years.
For anyone who doubted Zito could deliver on the big October stage, while facing the daunting task of dueling with Verlander, he didn't flinch once. And when two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum came out of the bullpen to replace him in the sixth, Zito ran off to a roaring standing ovation and offered a quick tip of his cap before disappearing into the dugout.
During his 2012 transformation back to reliable starter, the 33-year-old Zito never wanted the focus to be on him or how he has accomplished it all, but rather what he could add to make the Giants a winner and playoff contender again. And, possibly, win another World Series ring in the process.