Barry Zito, Stephen Strasburg and the Artistry of a Baseball Moment

There are vivid instances during every baseball season that perfectly express the sheer beauty and artistry of the game. Fans can be at the stadium, watching a game on TV, or listening on the radio and feel it; players in the field or standing along the dugout railing can experience it. That instant of heart pumping insight and understanding, and suddenly you’ve dropped deeper than ever before into the center-core of the game.

baseballs1I was watching the Friday night June 18, 2010, Comcast broadcast of the San Francisco Giants interleague road game against the Toronto Blue Jays. Giants starter Barry Zito was pitching against one of the best offensive line-ups in baseball— Toronto has the lowest number of at-bats per home run in the Majors, and the Jays’ 266 extra base hits are second only to the Red Sox (270).

At the same time, I flipped over to the Extra Innings White Sox at Washington Nationals game to check out Nats star rookie Stephen Strasburg. In the top of the 4th inning in Washington, Strasburg faced Alex Rios, Paul Konerko and Carlos Quentin. In throwing his third consecutive brilliant game, Strasburg struck out 10 Sox in seven innings, though the Nats would go on to lose the game 2-1 in the 11th. But, in the middle of Strasburg’s pitch sequence against the right hander Rios in the top of the 4th inning, he threw a fastball strike that was a jaw-dropping 98 mile per hour streak of white that unexpectedly bent, then violently dipped down to the side just as it crossed the plate.

The moment had me staring at the screen long after the pitch was thrown, and I thought, my god, have I ever seen that before, can any batter possibly hit that pitch, and can Strasburg throw that stuff whenever he wants to? Even though I’d seen Stephen Strasburg’s debut a few weeks ago, this pitch in this moment was astounding.

Then back to the Giants-Jays game and it was the start of the bottom of the 5th, and Barry Zito was facing shortstop Alex Gonzalez. As he started his wind-up, framed from behind in the ubiquitous centerfield camera angle, Zito threw the baseball in that confounding, easy motion with which he throws all his pitches. Only this pitch wasn’t a change-up or a fastball, but a curve that arched so high the ball actually swept up and out of the top frame of the TV picture, before reappearing again and slicing directly across the plate. Both Gonzalez and umpire Dana Demuth were fooled by the pitch:  a frozen Gonzalez watched it sail by, and Demuth called it a ball.

But Barry Zito’s pitch to Gonzalez was an absolute perfect strike; a precisely placed curve that, if it could have been hit at all, would have gone foul. Zito’s off-speed pitch was the exact opposite of Strasburg’s blazing, twisting heater but its equal in every way. Zito’s craftsmanship was damn near impeccable the entire game, and although he threw a complete game, the Giants lost to the Jays 3-2.  

Two breathtaking moments on the same night during this breathtaking 2010 season, full of amazing rookie debuts, the welcomed reemergence of pitching dominance in both leagues, no hitters, perfect games, and near-perfect games. Who could ask for anything more…

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