By Michelle Dingley
It’s no secret that the Giants are in first place because of their excellent pitching. Two of their six starters, however, are question marks. Jonathan Sanchez, currently on the DL, is inconsistent at best and lacks control. Barry Zito, much maligned for his huge contract, also battles with control issues and is a far cry from his days as a Cy Young winner. The Giants need to figure out what to do with these two southpaws if they are to make it to October.
On June 24, after another weak outing, Jonathan Sanchez told reporters that he felt healthy. He said there was nothing physically wrong with him to explain his lack of command in his no-decision against the Indians. (The Giants came from behind to win 4-3.) The next day, Sanchez found himself on the disabled list. Officially, he has left bicep tendinitis. From what Bochy and Sanchez said after the move to the DL, the lefty had been pushing through the mild injury for some time. He had been sore and needed a break. Fans were not very convinced that he was sore, but they agreed he could use a break.
Sanchez’s roster spot was filled by Barry Zito, who had been rehabbing after spraining his foot in April. In four minor-league starts, Zito earned a 4-0 record (totals of 2.20 ERA, 28.2 IP, 15 H, 7 ER, 7 BB, 25 K). His last rehab start was a two-hit, complete-game shutout for Fresno. Zito finally looked like he had his old form back, after years of disappointing numbers for San Francisco. Zito’s detractors pointed out that these numbers can’t be trusted; this was, after all, the minors. But when Zito came back to the Giants, he had three consecutive fantastic starts, with a 3-0 record. This includes a game in Detroit, in which Zito had to deal with a 2 ½ hour rain delay, yet gave up no runs over six innings.
The Zito haters returned on July 16, when the Padres rocked Zito in San Diego. He gave up 8 earned runs and 7 hits in only 3 2/3 innings, striking out 3 while walking 4, earning a loss. Three days later, the Giants announced they would skip Zito’s next start. Due to a scheduled day off, the rotation would slide up one day, pitching on regular rest. Zito would be available out of the bullpen. His next start will come July 27 in game 2 against the Phillies.
Skipping Zito’s start seems like a slap in the face, considering the three excellent games he pitched before the hiccup. Zito’s critics may point to this as proof that even the Giants organization has little faith in the pitcher. When Madison Bumgarner imploded on June 21, giving up 8 earned runs in 1/3 inning, Bochy immediately said that his next start would not be skipped. “There’s no way I’d give him a rest after today,” said the skipper, calling the historically bad outing “an off day.” MadBum proved him right with his next start, dominating the Indians for a win (7 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 11 K). He got right back on track with his string of quality starts.
Of course, it is more important to win a game than to spare a player’s feelings. The Giants will do whatever they need to do to give the team the best chance to succeed. It is prudent, however, to consider the player’s point of view. If Zito thinks management has given up on him, especially after his post-rehab resurgence, he may lose confidence, and that will show up in his performance. He’s a big leaguer and should be able to handle skipping a start, but Sabean and Neukom should also keep in mind that they are stuck with Zito for a while. They need to make the best of it.
The bottom line is, Zito and Sanchez have to improve. Jonathan’s biggest problem, beyond issues with command, is keeping his head in the game. The best example of this is one of the weirdest pitching performances in San Francisco history. In his April 30th start against the Nationals, Sanchez walked 4 in the first inning, but got out of it with no damage, thanks to a double play. In the second, he hit 2 batters and walked one, giving up just one run on a hit deflected off the shortstop’s glove. If Mike Fontenot, the littlest Giant, was a few inches taller, he probably would have caught it. In addition to being erratic, Sanchez failed to cover first on a ground ball hit to the first baseman. At the end of the inning, Dave Righetti escorted him into the clubhouse. Kruk and Kuip described this as being “taken to the woodshed.” After the lecture, Sanchez settled down and recovered nicely. (Somehow the Giants pulled out a win, which went to Mota.) Sanchez ended with a pitching line of 5 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 6 BB, 7 K, 2 HBP. Sanchez is a guy that needs a figurative kick in the pants to get into gear. Hopefully spending some time in the minors will teach him to focus himself without repeated trips to the woodshed.
So far, Sanchez has had two minor league rehab starts. Pitching for San Jose on July 17, Sanchez surrendered 6 hits and 6 ER in only 2 2/3 innings, walking 2 and fanning 3. His second start went much better. For Fresno on July 22, he went 5 innings, conceding 3 hits and 2 runs, walking 2 while striking out 8. (Catching for Jonathan was Hector Sanchez, who caught Zito in his rehab starts, and is back in Fresno after a cup of coffee in the bigs.)
When Sanchez is ready to come back from rehab (or maybe more accurately, when his rehab time runs out and the team is forced to bring him back), the Giants will have some roster decisions to make. It is unlikely the Giants will carry a six-man rotation. Barring another injury, one of the six starters will be the odd man out. If either Zito or Sanchez can prove to be useful out of the bullpen, he might be moved there. However, this would displace a current member of the bullpen. As good as the Giants’ starting rotation is, the pen is even better. We don’t want to make a change to the pen unless we absolutely have to. Because of Zito’s contract, he cannot be traded. Right now, Sanchez’s value is too low to be worth trading. Trading one of the other four starters is not an option. Something has to give.
Once Jonathan Sanchez returns, another pitcher will likely develop a mild case of tendonitis. And it will be miraculously cured on September 1, when rosters expand to 40.