SAN FRANCISCO -- The one-game-at-a-time mantra of athletes sounds better when Barry Zito does the chanting.
Zito has distilled his pitching approach to its smallest elements -- not just start to start, but even pitch to pitch. This sharpened focus, which Zito recently described as "myopic," has helped him thrive for the Giants as he rarely has since joining them in 2007.
Zito is 5-3 with a 3.24 ERA in 12 starts. Only once has he performed more efficiently with the Giants this deep into the season. That happened in 2010, when he was 6-2 with a 3.15 ERA at the same juncture. Zito's fortunes proceeded to plummet, as he finished 9-14 with a 4.15 ERA and didn't make San Francisco's postseason roster.
Avoiding a similar situation doesn't preoccupy Zito. That's not because he doesn't care. Rather, he has come to realize that dwelling on results can sabotage one's own efforts to excel.
"For me, it's hard to have an aspiration to do something that's really any bigger or greater than go out [for] my next game or my next pitch and give everything I got," Zito said. "That's because you can't control things that are a year from now, right now. You can dream about it, but what do I have an effect on today? Going out there and giving everything I've got. If you do that enough, things that you want to happen are probably going to happen."
Zito offered an example of how this attitude works.
"In that first inning, it's your job to make this pitch and then the next pitch. If you stay there, you look up after nine innings and you've thrown a shutout," said Zito, who happened to blank Colorado, 7-0, on four hits in his first start of the season on April 9. "But if you're going out there to throw a shutout, everything gets backwards. Everything gets twisted. If you get a guy on third base with one out, I'm like, 'Oh man, I'm not going to throw a shutout.' And then a run scores and your bubble's burst and you lose your focus.
"For me, things are a lot more manageable when I can boil them down to simple tasks that I can repeat. And that has nothing to do with results."
It's well-documented that Zito's results have fallen short of expectations shaped by the seven-year, $126 million contract the Giants gave him before the 2007 season. He's 48-64 with a 4.44 ERA for San Francisco after posting a 102-63 mark with a 3.55 ERA for Oakland from 2000-06. Other highly paid players on other teams might stir resentment by underperforming. Not Zito, who earned respect among the Giants for his unflagging diligence.
"He's been one of the best teammates that I've had," right-handed reliever Sergio Romo said. "No matter what, he stays the same. He still works hard. He goes about his business the same exact way every day."
Echoed right-hander Matt Cain: "Maybe he hasn't done what he wanted to in past years, but he always has been that same teammate and friend. That shows a lot. That's pretty cool. A lot of times, you'll see somebody hanging his head and wanting to point fingers. But he mainly looked inside himself and tried to figure out ways to change it."
Last offseason, Zito worked with Tom House, a renowned expert in pitching mechanics, and emerged with a motion that began with a slightly more bent right (front) leg. This, Zito explained, was designed to prompt more momentum through his lower body, which should generate more arm speed.
Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti has noticed the difference.
"His delivery's a little more solid," Righetti said. "When he gets in trouble, it's easier for him to make pitches. ... He gradually has gotten in a position where his body feels really comfortable on the mound. ... Now he's thinking about the hitter instead of thinking about his delivery. He can focus on how to get the hitters out, which is half the battle."
Addressing details of Zito's repertoire, Righetti said, "There's less of that floating changeup. It's a little more sharp. The curveball's not as big. It's a little tighter and easier for him to get it over. And I think it's easier for the umpires to call [it a strike], because [the break is] not as gigantic. It was really a full-time take pitch before, because guys didn't want to swing at it until they had to."
Zito also worked, period. Following an injury-marred 2011 campaign in which he made only 13 appearances and finished 3-4 with a 5.87 ERA, Zito began throwing around mid-October, barely more than two weeks after the Giants' season ended.
"For me, this offseason was really productive regardless of the changes I made, because I was focused 100 percent on getting better, whichever way I could," he said.
Zito interrupted his training regimen for his wedding in early December, taking the former Amber Marie Seyer as his bride. He acknowledged that his personal fulfillment has enhanced his professional outlook.
"It just seems like there's a counterbalance now to all the intensity and focus that's required on the field," he said. "There's something to come home to. There's something more important than baseball. For me, there wasn't always a lot that was more important than baseball. And now, I feel like I have some perspective."